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‘Beautician and the Beast’: ‘King and I’ Meets ‘Nanny’

FOR THE TIMES

Fran Drescher’s voice should be hooked up to an oscilloscope, because there are things going on there that defy explanation. The piggybacked harmonics, the simultaneous octaves, the symphonic whine disturbing the peace like a rusty razor, all lead one to suspect that somewhere among her multiple waves of Flushing-accented effusiveness, Drescher is producing sounds that only dogs can hear.

Explaining her appeal, on the other hand--either on TV’s “The Nanny” or in its spiritual descendant “The Beautician and the Beast"--is a snap. Drescher’s a traditionalist, basically, inasmuch as minority humor and self-abasement are American comedy institutions. Drescher’s Lucy-Desi shtick is a combo platter of ethnicity (Queens’ Jewish), innate absurdity (striking good looks married to a voice like bad radio reception) and the fact that she’s everybody’s equal, by virtue of being culturally hamstrung.

Of course, Drescher is also no idiot, which is why “The Beautician and the Beast,” a lime-and-fuchsia-flavored “The King and I,” is so much more appealing than either its premise or its trailers suggest. As beauty school instructor Joy Miller, Drescher is talky, sexy, inappropriate and smart. And until director Ken Kwapis allows sentimental seriousness to overtake the humor, so is the movie.

Based on the same setup as about a hundred TV sitcoms and dubious movies, “The Beautician and the Beast” finds Drescher’s colorful Joy in the drab former Soviet socialist republic of Slovetzia. It’s a mix-up, of the classically sitcom variety: Grushinsky (Ian McNeice), emissary of Slovetzia dictator Boris Pochenko (Timothy Dalton), has hired Joy as governess to Pochenko’s children, thinking she’s a science teacher (“Teach it?” she says later. “I didn’t even pass it”). Joy, under the impression Grushinsky needs a beautician, is happy to go along for the ride, especially since the job she really wanted--doing hair for the women who pick Lotto numbers on TV--has gone to someone more chichi.

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Joy doesn’t exactly sing “Getting to Know You,” but once in Slovetzia she wins the children over, befriends the locals (“Svetlana! Wait up!”), organizes a union at one of Pochenko’s factories and makes Boris steam. But with steaming, Boris also softens, prompting his malevolent prime minister Kleist (Patrick Malahide) to speculate whether there isn’t room at the top.

There’s a romantic subplot about Pochenko’s daughter, Katrina (Lisa Jakub of “Mrs. Doubtfire”), and an anti-government subversive, and of course the growing affection between Boris and Joy. Dalton, not by nature a comedian, is actually quite good as Boris, precisely because informality seems to be so hard for both of them. Everyone, however, comes off as stiff next to Drescher, who leaves her dainty high-heel marks all over “The Beautician and the Beast.”

“I used to give pedicures to women who wore plastic shoes in summer,” she tells Grushinsky. “What’s a tougher gig than that?” Well, it’s not being Fran Drescher, she of the emery-board voice and tacky charm, who makes this stuff about class and status seem very easy indeed.

* MPAA rating: PG for some mild language and sensuality. Times guidelines: The film may be a bit mature for younger kids but is generally harmless.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘The Beautician and the Beast’

Joy Miller: Fran Drescher

Boris Pochenko: Timothy Dalton

Kleist: Patrick Malahide

Grushinsky: Ian McNeice

Katrina: Lisa Jakub

Masha: Heather DeLoach

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Karl: Adam LaVorgna

A Koch Co. production, in association with High School Sweethearts, released by Paramount. Director Ken Kwapis. Producers Howard W. Koch Jr., Todd Graff. Screenplay Todd Graff. Cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister. Editor Jon Poll. Costumes Barbara Tfank. Music Cliff Eidelman. Production design Rusty Smith. Art director Steve Cooper. Set Designer John D. Jefferies Sr., Louisa S. Bonnie. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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