''I want mess and chaos!'' Rose (Barbra Streisand) declares to Gregory (Jeff Bridges) in the speechy climax to The Mirror Has Two Faces, her newest directing-starring-singing-over-the-closing-credits production. Rose is a wisecracking middle-aged Columbia University professor of Romantic literature whose fashion influences are neo-shtetl; Greg is a middle-aged math teacher at the same New York City university, under the sartorial sway of Fred MacMurray. And the two marry in a sexless arrangement that plays to their deepest, most psychoanalytically interesting neurotic tendencies: She has been conditioned by her beautiful mother (Lauren Bacall) and sister (Mimi Rogers) to think she's a loser shlub, while he, severely unnerved by past relationships with pretty women, has conjured up a theory of romantic bliss that involves unconsummated marriage to a woman who doesn't turn him on.
Both parties settle for this conjugal sham (twin beds, Rock Hudson and Doris Day pajamas, the whole ''Hmmm, are you sure he's straight?'' rigmarole) until secondhand Rose finally cracks, takes a breather from her husband, confronts the domineering ghoul of a mother who has made her feel so puny all her life (Bacall plays to the bleachers, or wherever, of a gay bathhouse), and gets a beauty makeover. Hello, Gawjuss! Whereupon Greg realizes he has desired the old Rose all along. Rose realizes she has desired the old Rose all along. She coughs up that ''I like mess!'' manifesto, describing the kind of romantic passion she wants in her life. And together the two do a predawn happy-dance in the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side located, incidentally, in the actual zip code of more sexually ambiguous academic men married to wisecracking academic women than any other neighborhood in America.
The psychoanalytically rich truth, of course, is that no woman is more averse to mess, chaos, or spontaneity than Barbra Streisand. Every pose of her bullet-shaped fingernails, every camera angle, line of dialogue, and reaction shot is calibrated, supervised, retouched, rewritten, and overdetermined in Streisandland. No two characters could be less spontaneous than Rose and Greg. No modern romantic comedy could be more manufactured or ... awful. And yet the unintentional self-revelation that leaks out of every scene in this jaw-dropping production is what makes The Mirror Has Two Faces such an astonishing full-Barbra experience and a camp classic.
As a director, Streisand has often been accused of vanity understandably so, since she plops herself in every frame and bids everyone else to adore her while getting out of her way. But behold how vanity can backfire! Rose is a collection of shtick and accessories. In the classroom, she dazzles her students with her intelligence and self-confidence. But at home (she's a professional who is first seen living with her widowed mama), she feeds her low self-esteem by noshing junk food and watching TV in her bathrobe. Bridges' Greg isn't a grown man, he's an assemblage of infantilized absentminded-professor routines. When flustered, which is frequently, he trips over furniture; at one point the poor man has been forced to do a spit take. Fluffed, goosed, and tweaked to such ''perfection,'' Rose and Greg lose all their poignancy, all their appeal, all their moorings to reality. We know these two people are lonely and afraid of love and deserve our empathy. But they enact their tightly choreographed pas de deux in such a hermetically sealed universe that our emotions can never be engaged. Instead, we are left to muse, ''Oy vey, does Streisand know how over-the-top she is?''
That's not to say that Mirror is difficult to sit through. The synthetic one-liners that pass for humor and sentiment in the star-approved version of Richard LaGravenese's script are struck regularly, like gongs. ''I feel like we're roommates in charm school,'' Rose says of the couple's awkward bedroom arrangements. ''I don't care if you are pretty, I love you anyway,'' Greg tells his wife in the fairy-tale conclusion. The settings are pretty. The music is slick.
The points of Streisand's story, however that beauty comes from within, that everyone deserves love, that even insecure people can be big stars are lost. In a scene designed to unveil the revamped Rose, Streisand the director has the camera pan down Streisand the actress, pausing to admire the woman's Elvira-like cleavage and fine ankles. It's a moment almost giggle-worthy in its self-conscious conceit, and therefore, ironically, a shot of the star at her most vulnerable. It's a Barbra-rific moment, one that is sure to be reenacted in cabaret acts for years to come. It's Barbra in the mirror, and all we can do is gape. C-