THE BEAUTICIAN AND THE BEAST (1997) ** 1/5
She plays Joy from Queens, teaches "science" at a school, meaning hairdressing, make-up, pedicure and the like. A fire starts in the science lab, she rescues various animals including a python (this is the first of several not followed up potential gags or twists). The heroine makes tabloid headlines.
He plays Boris Pochenko, the President-for-life of Slovetzia, a postage-stamp-size country of eastern Europe that can be located on the map only with a magnifying glass, if you look at (forgive me, Alfred) the North by Northwest of Romania. A former Communist dictatorship the nation is now a non-Communist dictatorship under Pochenko. Belatedly realizing that help from the West calls for some westernization, and that charity begins at home, the widowed President sends one of his yes-men to America to recruit a teacher for his four children.
Ian McNeice,the best performer in the movie, is envoy Grushinsky, who, misled by the headlines, takes Joy for a bone fide educator. (You should always read the fine print). Realizing his mistake he still offers Joy the tutoring job. Flown to Slovetzia, the beautician muddles through in her teaching, charms the kids, tells it like it is, remains unflappable, takes charge of everything and antagonizes the dictator. Any viewer with a mental age over 6 knows that romance and democracy will blossom.
"B & B" is, in a sense, a far removed poor man's Frank Capra movie of the post-modern persuasion: humble people or mavericks can make big changes in others and in society. Joy is an American, therefore America is best. Joy shows common sense, American common sense. There's a speechifying opposition to Boris by young people who meet in a discotheque's not-so-hidden back room. The music and counterculture are American, therefore America is best.
Even by the pliable parameters of fantasy, the film is indigent in imagination and rich in impossibilities. Everyone in Slovetzia speaks English, from the nomenclatura to the kitchen help. The President's kids look and sound American, in spite of the older boy unsuccessful attempting a Slavic accent.
Forget about logic and continuity. A subplot about the elder daughter and her anti-Boris boyfriend is padding that gets nowhere. Elsewhere,before an official ball begins, Joy and Boris start dancing to the violin of the first musician who gets there. Next arrives the accordionist, but there are no accordion sounds. Then the piano joins in, but it is followed --not preceded-- by the entrance of the pianist. The early soundtrack has a nice soupcon of klezmer music, then the score becomes generic.
The whole thing is rather sloppily put together and very uneven as a comedy. Most jokes and gags are not witty or humorous, nor do they give us broad slapstick as in Marx Brothers films or the British combination of broad and cool comedy -- as in the Ruritanian (i.e. set in an imaginary country) "The Mouse That Roared," "The Mouse on the Moon," "Romanoff and Juliet" and others. Joy's slide-show jokes on Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich are not just lame, they have no legs.
Joy herself is a living joke, a Jewish-American Non-Princess who enriches the language with Yiddishisms and assaults the eyes with tacky, blatantly colored clothes that could bring back memories of toreador pants in spandex.
The emblem of Slovetzia is a boar. It would be tempting to declare that the film is more bore than boar, but this would be unfair since some bits between lulls do make you chuckle or laugh. Like Joy's possessive mother who carries her daughter's umbilical cord in her purse. Like the local encyclopedia's entry for General Boris Pachenko who "in 1991 organized and coordinated Operation Desert Storm." Like the arbitrary, sudden and funny Evita-on-the-balcony spoof.
Less succesful is Joys insistence to have Boris take her to a sweatshop factory so that he can get in touch with his people. To an artificial chorus-from-nowhere rendering of the Communist anthem "The Internationale," the President awkwardly schmoozes, Joy does a too brief, too vague imitation of Sally Field on a platform in "Norma Rae" demanding unionization
The President is like Uncle Josef Stalin in hair, mustache, uniforms and accouterments. Joy de-Stalinizes him with her homespun wisdom, her appeals for better parenthood, her haircutting skills, her unexpectedly esthetic advice for civilian suits. Dalton gets his morals fixed and his good looks back, but he does not grab you, he never seems to have any kind of brains.
Ethnic jokes can get tedious or produce gems. Woody Allen's "The biggest sin in my family is to buy retail" or Lainie Kazan's Jewish mother receiving Peter O'Toole in "My Favorite Year" are clever comic contributions. In "B & B" there's little dialogue to remember. Still, near the end there's a good line. Back in Queens, Joy is horrified at what her mother gave her pet chicken: "You fed the chicken chicken?" There is, too, a remembrance of a high school musical version of "Rosemary's Baby." "I love you, but don't keep me waitin' / This embryo belongs to Satan."
By now it is official that Hollywood is again relying heavily on female audiences, making "women's pictures," and/or working in femme-appealing elements even in action and disaster films as well as in a hybrid comedy like "B &B."
I say "hybrid" because the movie falls partly into the venerable, escapist Ruritanian category. The name comes from writer Anthony Hope who set his romance-adventure story "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1894) in the imaginary country of Ruritania. Whether called Freedonia, Romanza, or Slovetzia, most of those kingdoms or duchies were located within the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, often in Romania --whose Transylvania also gave us Count Dracula.