When it comes to story, I don’t mind cliché and formula. Sometimes storytellers get so wrapped up in trying to find an untold story that they forget to be engaging. Sooner or later, plots will start sounding similar and characters will seem borrowed from other works. It’s an inevitability that should be embraced, because there is plenty of room for innovation within the clichés. What distinguishes stories from one another is how the story is told, which brings us to A Beautiful Life. This film is a perfect example of cliché variables thrown together in the hopes of creating something greater than the sum of its parts. Regrettably, the writing and direction isn’t strong enough to keep it all together, wasting the few strong performances the actors offer.
A Beautiful Life revolves around three main characters: Maggie (Angela Sarafyan) is a runaway teen, escaping a mysteriously abusive past. David (Jesse Garcia) is an illegal immigrant dishwasher, hounded by immigration agents. Esther (Bai Ling) is an exotic dancer with a heart of gold. They all have their individual challenges to overcome, but they also have personal dreams, like getting an education, bringing family members to the United States or becoming a professional singer. In the meantime, the characters make do with what they have, getting by with each other’s camaraderie and finding the beauty of the moment and hope for the future.
Another half hour of movie would have gone a long way in fleshing out A Beautiful Life. In its current form, the story only develops Maggie’s plot, but not fully. All of the beats feel forced and the characters she meets are plot utilities rather than living, breathing people. For instance, the story requires David and Angela to begin feeling romantic towards each other, so they simply do without any kind of foundation to suggest that they like each other. Later, Angela is helped by the most overzealous local librarian (Debi Mazar) in the world. Whenever Angela walks into the library, the librarian is inexplicably falling all over herself to assist Angela in an odd, almost fairy godmother-esque manner. Other characters also have interesting stories, but only develop half their story arcs, leaving audiences wondering why their stories were included at all.
There are a handful of excellent performances with special recognition going to Angela Sarafyan and Bai Ling. Sarafyan acting is strong enough to carry the film and her performance during a difficult scene where she’s sexually aroused while being beaten is fearless. While Bai Ling could have had a little more screen-time, she makes the most of her scenes and flexes her acting chops. Considering she accepted the role the day before filming and didn’t have time to read the script, it’s truly impressive what Bai Ling was able to do with the role. She even believably pulls off a sexy Jazz tune during a stripping routine. Of course it’s difficult to recognize the wonderful performances because most of the material they have to work with is difficult to enjoy.
The script is a few drafts away from where it needs to be. Dialog is stilted, characters are unbelievable and scenes are forced. Characters get into fights with no natural impetus. One moment they’re discussing the prospect of eating peanut butter spaghetti, the next they’re kicking chairs and breaking plates. Watching the actors do what they can with their lines and blocking typically inspires sympathy, because their talent is there; the writing isn’t.
A Beautiful Life is a mixed bag that’s mostly full of things you don’t want. The direction and writing are the biggest culprits. While there are a few shining moments – Angela Sarafyan and Bai Ling are a pleasure to watch and are absolute knockouts – there simply isn’t enough quality to recommend this film.