The Beautician and the Beast
1997 • 105 minutes • Paramount Pictures
The Beautician and the Beast, I owe you an apology.
You see, as a fan of truly bad films, I often spend time digging through Netflix and Hulu to find hidden gems. (And I mean truly bad films—films made in all earnestness with the hopes of being good. The intentionally bad movie—your Birdemics, your Sharknados, and, if some rumors are to be developed, your Rooms—holds no appeal for me. I want to see where it all went wrong with the best of intentions.) The Beautician and the Beast simply looked like a perfect candidate. A 1997 romantic comedy about a Queens beautician who, through a series of hilarious mishaps, ends up playing teacher to a ruthless Eastern European dictator’s children? Oh, and said leads are Fran Drescher, in a role that sank her film career, and Timothy Dalton, a man whose diet is entirely composed of scenery? (And I imagine still is; I haven’t seen Penny Dreadful, because I am a total wimp.) In short: come to Mama.
But, The Beautician and the Beast, you surprised me. This film is surprisingly sweet and charming.
Oh, its premise is still deeply, deeply flawed. It treats the painful legacy of dictatorship and despotism with such a light-hearted air that I spent roughly one-third of the film apologizing to Captain Cinema, who derives from Eastern European stock. In fact, I’m utterly baffled as to why Boris Pochenko, Timothy Dalton’s character, is a dictator and not, say, a king whose country is transitioning to democracy or socialism. “L’internationale” is played without a hint of irony in this film. His regime is explicitly compared to Hitler’s at one point. (“It’s like Paris fifty years ago!” “There were Nazis in Paris fifty years ago!”) Why bring up something so fraught and painful if you’re making a fluffy romantic comedy?
And yet… Fran Drescher and Timothy Dalton, who are two wonderful human beings, are so delightful together. I’m very used to hearing abuse heaped on Drescher for her nasal voice (I remember Eric McCormack once literally implying it was a boner-killer in an interview, so he can go jump in a lake) that it’s sometimes very easy to forget that Drescher is incredibly funny, massively charismatic, and incredibly gorgeous. Meanwhile, Timothy Dalton is Timothy Dalton, the British ur-panther that Benedict Cumberbatch wishes he could be. What’s the best way to put this? He made a Hemingway joke and set a dude on fire in Licence to Kill (not in that order). That’s all the information you need on T Daltz. Together? Their chemistry is warm and electric. It’s just a joy to watch them flirt, over sandwiches and politics and whatever this bonkers script throws at them. In one scene, Drescher tells off a tailor for overpadding Dalton’s shoulders and tries to remove the padding. “Oh,” she purrs. “This is all you.” It’s magical.
Plus, The Beautician and the Beast is actually weirdly feminist, which I would not have expected from a 1997 romantic comedy with such a cringe-inducing premise. Dalton is a very physically intimidating man, let alone performer—scenery will be chewed, oh yes, and the scene partners in them as well. (This is a man who kisses his leading ladies with both hands on their heads, as if to crush them.) But Drescher’s Joy is never, for one moment, scared of him. The film also takes time to establish her as a woman with hopes and dreams of her own in an animated opening (take that, Enchanted!), but I was most impressed with her utter fearlessness with him. She listens to him, surely, but she’s very willing to stand up against him when it comes to his oppressive politics (like his country’s labor laws—wow, this movie is built on such a faulty premise) and his treatment of his children. But, specifically, she’s not physically afraid of him, no matter how much he roars and bellows. When he threatens to hit his own daughter, she bodily puts herself between them and takes him to task. He even asks, at one point, if she’s intimidated by him. She responds by pointing out that his sideburns are uneven. And, despite the fact that they are clearly perfect for each other, she won’t have a thing to do with him if he doesn’t treat his people like, you know, people.
Which is where we run back into the utterly deranged premise, which could have been so turned into something not so immediately problematic with a little tweaking here and there. It’s well worth watching to see Drescher and Dalton play off of each other, but it’s a little hard to recommend. Still, with a trigger warning for its premise firmly in place, I do.
I watched this film on Netflix.