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Culture of Beauty 

Made-Up makes up for its mockumentary stylings

The mockumentary genre is best reserved for the comic dexterity and farcical bent of Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) because it can be nitroglycerin in a less skilled filmmaker's hands. The form suggests an irreverent and cavalier approach. Being dismissive with indulged heavy metal rockers in This is Spinal Tap is one thing, but in a film about the more serious issue of beauty, the mockumentary setup can come off as misguided and trite.

Made-Up starts out gassy and absurd in the manner of so many mockumentaries. It's over the top and fake as actors "pretend" not to be acting as they play "real" people. But it begins in such a hysterical mode, you want to slap the undeserved grin off its face.

When the film opens, a pushy unseen filmmaker goads Elizabeth Tivey (Brooke Adams) to describe her relationship to beauty for the camera. Kate James (Lynne Adams) is the filmmaker, and she's making a documentary starring her recently separated and depressed sister, Elizabeth.

Lynne Adams, who wrote Made-Up, seems to have adopted the mockumentary format because it allows her to present the material casually, thereby making its feminist insights less threatening. It certainly allows characters to speak their feelings, but it also contributes to a sense that the film's female characters are essentially flaky, hypocritical and manipulative.

Shockingly aged for those who remember her as a heartthrob of the '70s, Brooke Adams is her own piece of verite as Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is an aging former actress who has, in the words of her looks-obsessed teenage daughter, Sara (Eva Amurri), "let herself go." Her hair is cropped and gray, her body untended by exercise. She embodies the frumpy battle wounds of a woman whose husband (Gary Sinise) has abandoned her for young, bosomy Molly (Light Eternity). A self-absorbed artist, Molly explains to the camera that her creative career places her outside the moral codes of the straight world, which looks unfavorably on husband stealing.

While Elizabeth struggles with a poisoned self-image, she is further tortured by daughter Sara's obsession with beauty and her growing adoration for Molly. Although Sara, like so many of Made-Up's female characters, comes off initially as a flake, her desire to be a makeup artist becomes more expansive. Rather than attesting to her shallowness, it illustrates her belief that she can pull the hidden beauty out of women -- like her mother, whom she gives a makeover -- and give them a more positive self-image.

Amazingly, Made-Up begins to grow on you, especially when it drops the mockumentary conceit and mellows into a romantic comedy. The film becomes zany and poignant in unexpected places, especially in its observations that women use makeup and appearance not simply to please men, but to project their own sense of self. We soon learn that Elizabeth's slovenly appearance -- despite her outspoken claims to feminist integrity -- says a lot more about how she feels inside.

Made-Up's lived-in quality can be explained in part by its behind-the-scenes origin. The film's director is Adams' real-life husband, Tony Shalhoub (who also appears onscreen as Elizabeth's love interest). Made-Up's writer and co-star is Brooke Adams' sister, Lynne.

The "made up" of the title is, unfortunately, as much an indication of the improvisational quality of the film as it is about the issue of putting on makeup to look beautiful. The film points out many human foibles -- female vanity, male obliviousness to the emotional lives of women -- but without vilifying the characters in the process. The film succeeds despite itself, as an absurd comedy with some real insight into how women relate to men, but most of all, how they relate to each other.

Felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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