The Catch-22 for most sitcom stars who want to become movie stars is that the very thing that makes them tube favorites — the exaggerated qualities of the characters for which they have become beloved and rich — is exactly what strangles them on the bigger screen. David Schwimmer, Ellen DeGeneres, Kelsey Grammer — they’re each pinioned by the success of their TV personas. Studio movies written for them inevitably turn out to be movies in which stars play weak variations on their TV selves, only not as endearing. It’s not impossible to break out, of course; Tom Hanks has done just fine. But it’s not impossible to win a Nobel Prize, either.
With Fools Rush In and The Beautician and the Beast, Friends’ Matthew Perry and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher become the latest prime-time players to drive their own, pardon the expression, feature-film vehicles. Both display the charms for which they are so widely admired at affiliates meetings. But each is hampered, to greater or lesser degree, by the synthetic conceits of their stretched-out stories.
The greater degree belongs to Perry, the last Friend to try his hand at feature comedy. On NBC, as single, thin, and neat Chandler Bing, Perry has staked out a coveted seat as the resident WASP, acerbically witty and sexually jumpy. In Fools, he’s a corporate New York type who builds nightclubs and prefers beers with buddies to entanglements with girls. A one-night stand with a sultry Mexican American chica (Desperado’s Salma Hayek, laying on the hots) while on a business trip to Las Vegas, however, results in pregnancy and an impulsive marriage. The result is a stilted culture clash (she loves her colorful family in Vegas, he loves hot dogs in Manhattan; big problem) — and the opportunity for Perry to act monochromatically conflicted until it’s time for the movie to end and he’s warmed by the love of an ethnic woman.
Indeed, ethnic women work overtime in both of these capers, thawing the cold blood of uptight men with their hot ability simply to say what’s on their minds. Drescher, of course, has capitalized for years on playing the princess of Queens, New York, a Jewish salt of the earth poured into the figure and wardrobe of a Barbie doll. In Beautician (conducted with an easy hand by Ken Kwapis, the original director of The Larry Sanders Show), her spiciness as a hairdresser wins her a job tutoring the children of a gruff dictator (Timothy Dalton, for no particular reason) in an Eastern European country; long story short, she’s mistaken for a science teacher. Longer story short, she liberates the kids, enlightens the despot, and changes the course of Slavic history — one part The King and I, one part The Sound of Music, and a huge chunk The Nanny, with a script by Todd Graff aiming at Paul Rudnickian zingers and settling for lines for Drescher like ”I can find food at Gandhi’s house!”
The thing is, Drescher can. Which is why Beautician beats out Fools — just barely — when you feel like buying a movie ticket for network comedy.
Fools Rush In: C-
The Beautician and the Beast: C+