"The Beautician & the Beast"
Opened: Friday, February 7, 1997
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who don't mind Fran Drescher and those whose ear drums burn at the very thought of her nasal, Long Island whine.
Folks in the latter category probably haven't even read this far, so allow me to assume by your continued attention that you are tempted by "The Beautician and the Beast," a tawdry, frivolously modern fairy tale that serves as Drescher's coming-out-of-television party.
Drescher stars as Joy Miller, a stuck-in-a-rut New York makeup artist who hits the front page of the Post after saving her cosmetology night school class from a hair spray-induced fire.
With Drescher in her element, these early scenes are the opening volleys in a barrage of one-liners used to buoy the uneven script ("It's called Revlon, not Dutch Boy," she scolds a rogue-crazy student).
Having been mistaken for a dedicated school teacher by a representative of a small dictatorship in Eastern Europe, she accepts a job tutoring the brood of President-for-Life Boris Pochenko (Timothy Dalton, the ex-James Bond).
The children love Joy's liberated Western ideals and her ability to fill a room with attitude. Their tyrannical father resists the temptation to have her thrown in a dungeon.
The rest of the film, as you might expect, centers around the love-hate banter that springs up between Drescher and Dalton. It's "The King and I" meets "The Sound of Music" meets "Laverne and Shirley."
Cheeky, tacky and short on book smarts, Joy has a hard time living up to Pochenko's expectations, but she garners his interest as the only person in his country with the audacity to talk back to him.
Dalton clearly had a ball playing the comically menacing dictator being dragged toward Western ways. He steals several scenes by milking his King of Siam/Captain von Trapp dialogue for all it's worth, even toying brazenly with a variation on Yul Brynner's venerable "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera..."
Of course his teenage daughter is in love with an entirely unsuitable boy (a leader in the democratic underground). Of course his son is expected to follow in his footsteps (but he really wants to be an artist).
Of course each kid has a scene receiving advice from the doting Drescher, who encourages them to not take any flack from their father.
While shamelessly plundering scene after scene from it's musical inspirations, "Beautician" does so tongue in cheek, trying to infuse humor into it's piracy. Sometimes it succeeds with hilarious results. Sometimes it falls so flat on its face that the audience sits in silence while the film pauses for laugher that never comes.
"The Beautician and the Beast" works best when Drescher and Dalton are sparring. He goes ballistic after she organizes workers at a factory they visit -- a scene that deftly apes "Norma Rae" -- to which she stiff-arms him, snapping back, "Talk to the hand, 'cause the ears aren't listening."
The movie is at its worst when Dalton gives in. After giving the stuffy dictator a make-over that finds him looking like a Calvin Klein ad (or like James Bond, for that matter), she is put in charge of orchestrating a reception designed to make him look civilized for visiting Western dignitaries (Any of this ring a bell?).
Even with Drescher in a knock-out gown, this climactic scene is devoid of the magic it tries to borrow from its source.
What's worse, the scene builds towards a perfectly good conclusion as our heroes dance together and fawn over each other (however unconvincingly) -- then prattles on for another 15 minutes after throwing one last wrench into the love story when Pochenko backs off a promise to hold free elections.
The main problem with "The Beautician and the Beast" is its pacing. The film moves in fits and starts, like a old jalopy running low on gas. At the wheel is director Ken Kwapis, who's best film was "He Said, She Said" -- another not-quite-funny romance.
In the hands of a better director, this movie might have been salvageable. But as it is, Fran Drescher's die hard fans are the only ones who might not be disappointed.