"The Mirror Has Two Faces," the title claims, and why not? But Barbra Streisand, who directs and plays the lead, has only one face, that of the star.
For Streisand's followers, that will present as little difficulty as it would for fans of action heroes like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Sylvester Stallone. Seeing "Mirror" underlines how reliably Streisand provides "Yes, I Can" wish-fulfillment fantasies for the emotionally downtrodden that parallel what Sly and the Muscles From Brussels do for the physically limited.
For those not under Streisand's spell, however, her insistence on being always alluring makes "The Mirror Has Two Faces" more problematical. Because it is just Streisand's inability to show herself in a less than flattering light that undermines the dramatic structure of the story she is apparently trying to tell.
Written by Richard LaGravenese and based loosely on a 1959 French film with the same name, "Mirror" is a romantic comedy that looks to be about a frumpy duckling who doesn't know she's beautiful enough to be a potential swan. It's a time-tested concept that is sandbagged by Streisand's refusal to play it more like an actress and less like a star.
In fairness, Streisand tries to be bedraggled for a bit. Columbia University professor Rose Morgan is introduced wearing an unflattering facial mask, and in short order has to cope with her madcap meddling mother (Lauren Bacall) and a whiny and persistent suitor (Austin Pendleton). And when she goes to the wedding of glamorous sister Claire (Mimi Rogers) to handsome Alex (Pierce Brosnan), she wears an outfit that is strictly thrift shop.
But a classroom scene that explodes with the intensity of mass student worship announces the end of that experiment. Even though the script continues to treat her like she's a doormat, Streisand's Rose, as photographed by Dante Spinotti and his replacement Andrzej Bartkowiak, never looks less than the accomplished and attractive woman she is.
Given this, it makes no kind of sense that fellow Columbia professor Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges) would pick Rose's photograph (sent in by Claire) from a pile of answers to his personal ad specifically because there was no chance of falling in love with her.
(This is not, parenthetically, a gender-based problem. One of the difficulties with the recent remake of "Sabrina" is that while William Holden was indisputably hunkier than Humphrey Bogart in the original, it needs a lot more than a homburg hat and a pair of glasses to make Harrison Ford look less desirable than Greg Kinnear.)
Why a handsome guy like Gregory Larkin would place a personal ad searching for companionship only is another story. A bow-tied professor of mathematics, Gregory has taken 14 years to write his latest book, "Absolute Truth?," because being in a physically exciting relationship flusters him to the point of paralysis.
Looking for a platonic coupling that will enable him to forget about the demons of the flesh, the professor thinks he's found a kindred soul when he investigates Rose by sitting in on one of her classes and hears her speak fondly of the traditions of courtly love: "They took sex out of the relationship. What was left was a union of souls."
Though her thoughts are not as pure as Gregory wants to believe, a friendship-based relationship, equal parts snowball fights and discussions of the Twin Primes Conjecture, works well enough for awhile. But Hollywood wouldn't be Hollywood if it didn't insist that complicating thoughts of sex find a way to force themselves back into the equation.
As an actor Streisand proves again that she's an experienced farceur who knows how to handle her laugh lines. And as a director she concentrates on pleasing her fans by placing herself in archetypal revenge situations, including giving the boot to a guy she thought she wanted when he finally comes around, and, in the scene the film was constructed around, finally presenting herself out of the chrysalis, looking more glamorous than all the other women in the cast combined.
Aside from this, "The Mirror Has Two Faces" is more stodgy than frothy, weighted down by several dramatic speeches about what's important in life that feel tacked on. Applause should go to Jeff Bridges, who does the best he can with his ability to be anybody in a film constructed around a performer who finally can only be herself.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, sensuality and some mature thematic material. Times guidelines: one scene of attempted seduction.
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'The Mirror Has Two Faces'
Barbra Streisand: Rose Morgan
Jeff Bridges: Gregory Larkin
Lauren Bacall: Hannah Morgan
George Segal: Henry Fine
Mimi Rogers: Claire
Pierce Brosnan: Alex
Brenda Vaccaro: Doris
An Arnon Milchan Barwood films production, in association with Phoenix Pictures, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Barbra Streisand. Producers Barbra Streisand, Arnon Milchan. Executive producer Cis Corman. Screen Story and Screenplay Richard LaGravenese, based on the picture "Le Miroir A Deux Faces." Cinematographers Dante Spinotti, Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Jeff Werner. Costumes Theoni V. Aldredge. Music Marvin Hamlisch. Production design Tom John. Art director Teresa Carriker-Thayer. Set decorator John Alan Hicks. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.