Fran Drescher only knows one joke, and she's it: the kvetching Queens queen of stupefying superficiality who possesses an adenoidal accent that could smash atoms and a good heart.
Apparently it's enough to sustain her successful half-hour sitcom "The Nanny" but about halfway through hour two of "The Beautician and the Beast" it does begin to feel as strained as Lycra stretched to the detonation point. The setup is TV-lame: As Joy Miller, she's a beauty school (night division) instructor in a far environ of an unnamed New York borough, who gets a blast of publicity when she saves some lab animals during a fire. That earns her the cover of the Daily News and attracts the attention of a lunky Eastern European diplomat searching for an American teacher to educate his dictator's children.
The children are the most adult thing in the film. The country -- wackily called "Slovetzia," I suppose, to distinguish it from Ruritania, Graustarkia and the Slobbovias, upper and lower -- is childishly conceived as a 19th-century duchy about the size of a postage stamp that somehow has both a royal family and a communist past.
Its president and leader for life is Boris Pochenko, played by Timothy Dalton. Dalton has been a star waiting to happen since "Flash Gordon" years back, but not even a spin as James Bond could make it real. This one probably won't either, but he's eventually amiable in his role as a rigid autocrat forced by the winds of change and the view of Drescher's spandexed tush into accepting a more benevolent political posture.
I was a little offended that his initial look was distinctly Stalinesque, complete to tunic, brush cut, inscrutable expression and pious delta of mustache. Not exactly funny ha-ha: Don't these idiots know who Stalin was and how many he killed? But that turns out not to be a staple of the film, for quickly enough it conspires to lighten up the grumpy dictator into a wild and crazy guy, and the whole thing unspools in such a fantasyland that it's difficult to sustain a grudge.
The plot manipulations are meager and expectable. The very spirit of liberalism, Drescher's Joy talks some workers into going on strike, smuggles the dictator's daughter into the prison where her boyfriend, a "rebel," is being held and teaches the kids how to color coordinate and figure frequent-flier miles.
She's not a character so much as the distilled essence of yenta as applied to the human figure and probably couldn't survive in a more naturalistic piece. The accent is a thing of hideous beauty in its own right: It's so intensely nasal it appears hydraulically blasted through several noses other than her own. Imagine the tubing bill! I ground another quarter-inch of my molars off during the film.
Still, it's difficult not to grudgingly come to appreciate her good-heartedness. She just wants everybody to get along and, in a fairy-tale world, wanting is as good as getting.
'The Beautician and the Beast'
Starring Fran Drescher and Timothy Dalton
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Released by Paramount
Sun score **
Pub Date: 2/07/97