Sunday, April 18, 2021

Watch Party Watch: The Beautician and the Beast (1997)

Watched:  04/16/2021
Format:  Amazon Watch Party
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1990's
Director:  Ken Kwapis

Wait wait wait...  Fran Drescher plays a sassy Jewish girl from working class New York who a well-meaning functionary mistakes as a great candidate for a child-rearing role for a powerful and wealthy handsome widower?  What an entirely novel concept!  

Look, you couldn't not be aware of Fran Drescher circa 1997.  I remember my grandmother praising The Nanny at the time, and my own hip 20-something skepticism.  But a couple of years ago I found myself watching re-runs of the show, and I was like "oh, I get it.  She wants to be Lucille Ball, but in mini-skirts and leaning into Jewish stereotypes that I, as a WASP from Texas, can neither confirm nor deny."  Frankly, for what it is, it works.  I won't say the show is "smart" exactly, but it does what it does well, and I get how it lasted 6 seasons.

But... even in 1997 I was confused by The Beautician and the Beast.  It's the same thing as what she was doing on TV.  Like, pretty much exactly.  The movie is even PG from an era where comedies were PG-13, but Drescher's comedy was always flirty, not going for overt sex comedy or working blue, and so felt sanitized for network censors of the time.  So there's not even "we could never do this on TV" to separate the two.  Drescher is quoted as saying she didn't want to challenge the audience too much as she moved to movies, but I'd argue - don't just ask them to pay for what they can see every week for free.*

Director Ken Kwapis was a hired gun, I'm assuming, but since Beautician and the Beast, he's actually gone on to do some stuff you like - mostly in TV.  

This movie takes the, uh, interesting tack to make a despotic dictator the lead romantic figure.  I mean, it's clear he's the kind of guy who disappears people and is responsible for crushing his countrymen, and, yes, Fran's influence is intended to soften him up and make him a decent guy.  It's loosely based on the titular idea of "Beauty and the Beast" with a hefty dab of "The King and I", and thus... There are literally no surprise story beats in this movie, so I don't feel too bad spoiling things.  It's kind of like going into a retelling of A Christmas Carol - it's more like "how, specifically, is this by-the-numbers story going to work?" 

But you get the feeling the movie was written to be 2 1/2 hours and was cut down to about an hour and 45.  

After winding up in the paper for saving a classroom full of kids from a fire, Drescher is hired by a functionary of Madeupistan's government and brought in to teach the kids of the the dictator (Timothy Dalton with a weird haircut that looks like he just cut very long hair and now it won't sit down on his head), but the guy who brought her in never asked what she taught at the local community college - which was cosmetology and beauty-school stuff.  

The movie suggests that each of the kids has an arc that Fran helps them along, but... it's all off screen?  Minus a bout with overtones of sexual assault from the despot's son - played for laughs because it is not yet 2012 or so.  But, yeah, there's a mopey teen daughter longing for a political dissident, a second daughter fighting some body image issues and a... small boy?  Who bites his nails?

We do get a bit of Fran going to a (a) underground nightclub that (b) doubles as a front for revolutionaries - and a star-crossed lovers story between the eldest daughter and one of the leaders of the movement which the movie sees from Fran's POV of "these are just crazy kids who are in love" which plays kinda weird, tbh.  

Understandably, the focus is really on the romance between Fran and Timothy Dalton, but it makes the stuff with the kids feel like an excuse and the movie incomplete.  Meanwhile, it bogs down in the third act when it decides to have a medley of conflicts and plot all of a sudden as - of course - political stalwarts freak out and try to maneuver their way to power as Timothy Dalton is distracted by Drescher and her opinions of how he's running things.  And - honestly - it's kind of a drag in a movie that seems to otherwise keep it very, very light right up to this moment. 

Weirdly, the movie diverts into what I assume were intended to play like I Love Lucy moments with Drescher being told to slaughter a chicken and other oddball diversions that don't advance the plot - it seems like that should have/ could have gone into building relationships with other characters.  There's not even any real explanation of when Fran started leaving the castle to go out and meet people (which leads to a major beat in the film).  Instead, they kind of want for the audience to just assume "oh, yeah, that happened.  You've seen this movie before in a dozen ways, so we don't need to explain it".  Which works in parodies, but...

If I had notes for the screenplay, it would be to look at The Sound of Music and note that the romance follows Maria investing in the kids.   Not doing that gives a real vibe of "rich man bangs the help" rather than "she has warmed his heart through her good acts" and you kinda think maybe the "president's" staff has a point that the lady in form fitting outfits is having an oversized influence on their leader.  

But here's the deal - I don't really care.  The movie is fine for what it is.  Much like The Nanny, it's a showcase for Drescher to do her thing after slogging through supporting roles for 20 years.  There were a lot of comedies in the mid-90's that made you ask "why is this a movie?" (see the entire run of Pauly Shore films), and this one is at least as good or better than those, and some of those I paid to see in the theater or got my $4 rental fee at Blockbuster.  

Drescher's production company** handled the film - and that's no small thing either.  The likelihood of Drescher's career suddenly sparking in her mid-30's was vanishingly small.  That she'd get to suddenly star in a movie at 42 as a romantic lead - even smaller.  I wish the movie had more of the energy of the TV show, but here we are.  

One last thing - one hallmark of The Nanny was that Drescher used the production budget and her aerobicized physique to dress in designer duds for most of the episodes of the 6 seasons of the show.  There are blogs out there tracking her outfits.  This movie leaned into a single designer, which led to - as someone astutely pointed out, it looked like Drescher was wearing new outfits all made out of the same material in scene after scene - and once you noticed it, you couldn't un-notice it. 

Frankly, as a watch party I knew it was going to just grate on some folks, and it did, and that was hilarious.

* the movie tanked.  It made $11.6 million on a reported $16 million budget.

**Drescher had married her high school sweetheart and named her company "High School Sweethearts" which worked right up til when she and her husband of 20-odd years divorced.

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