The cinematic equivalent of a cheesy, multi-accented — and self-consciously naive — college production, “The Beautician and the Beast” is a mildly entertaining romantic comedy in the tradition of the “culture clash” movies that Hollywood used to churn in the studio era. Toplined by comedian Fran Drescher, who currently can be seen in the popular CBS sitcom, “The Nanny,” Paramount release should generate modest returns in quick and wide playouts, provided Drescher’s TV fans embrace her bigscreen vehicle, which is targeted at the Valentine’s Day dating crowd.
Though utterly lacking the celebrated Lubitsch touch, scripter Todd Graff (“Used People”) obviously likes and respects the master’s European comedies, most notably “Ninotchka” and “The Shop Around the Corner,” for his narrative bears thematic resemblance to these works as well to more modern films, like Laurence Olivier’s “The Prince and the Showgirl,” and of course the classic fable, “Beauty and the Beast” and its numerous variants. Drescher, who’s one of the film’s executive producers, stars as Joy Miller, a very Jewish, very whiny woman who makes a living as a beautician. Cheery, determined and aspiring way above her working-class origins and modest Queens residence, Joy is confident that her upbeat personality, idiosyncratic style and commonsensical charm will help materialize her loftier ambitions for a better life.
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Opportunity knocks when a mishap with a Bunsen burner, hair spray and a cigarette causes a fire in the classroom where Joy is teaching a night course on beauty and manners. Rescuing her students — and a lab full of animals — she inadvertently becomes a local hero. Her plucky exploits capture the attention of Grushinsky (Ian McNeice), an emissary from the Eastern European nation of Slovetzia, who mistakes her for a teacher and offers her a job tutoring the three children of tyrannical dictator Pochenko (Timothy Dalton), also known as “Boris the beast.” West —or more accurately Jewish New York — meets East, the formerly Communist Slovetzia, and the result is a highly predictable comedy of errors: Pochenko assumes he has hired an exemplary academic; Joy thinks he has employed a stellar beautician.
Centering on a familiar culture clash of Western democracy vs. rigid and inefficient communism, the battling forces are embodied by the divergent personalities of the film’s protagonists, who not surprisingly soon fall for each other.
Dressed in outrageous pink and purple outfits, Joy begins a full-bodied assault, determined to blow the cobwebs off ancient traditions that oppress Slovetzia’s good-natured citizenry — and prevent the tiny, mousy country from entering into the liberal, technologically advanced 21st century. Along the way, Joy uses her Queens’ logic to educate Boris, who becomes a more sensitive and benevolent ruler, and to teach his three children some “useful” life lessons.
The none-too-subtle romantic sparks that fly between the single thirtysomething beautician and the widower-beast will remind viewers of such movieish battles of the sexes as “The King and I” or “The Sound of Music.” In more than one sense, conceptually, pic is like a musical without songs, trying to compensate for this lack with romantic flourishes, raucous punch lines and set pieces, such as the one in which Joy encourages factory workers to form a union. Drescher is a bit too old to play the naive ingenue, though she comes across as a warm, funny and likable performer, one whose nasal, whiny delivery — and overtly Jewish mannerisms — recall Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand.
As the old-fashioned, autocratic “monster-leader,” former James Bond Timothy Dalton begins broadly and deliberately as a buffoon in order to make his transformation into a kinder and gentler ruler, and a dashing ladies’ man, more credible. Though playing narrowly defined parts, Michael Lerner and Phyllis Newman are also well cast as Joy’s parents.
Gothic architecture — the film was shot on location in Prague’s 17th century Sychrov Castle — contributes to pic’s fairy-tale, castle-like feel. One can’t really fault the ensemble’s baffling blend of incoherent accents and inflections, for the whole movie is a high-camp trifle, not meant to be taken seriously by anyone — least of all its actors.