Thursday, October 4, 2012

People Who Need People: "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996)

Barbra Streisand does another fantastic job directing a big sturdy cast of actors in a bloated, awkwardly constructed romantic comedy.

Rose (Barbra Streisand) is a frumpy but extremely popular English professor at Columbia University who lives with her mother (Lauren Bacall) and plays the bridesmaid, never the bride, at her sister Claire's (Mimi Rogers) third wedding. Beautiful Claire is marrying the perfect Alex (Pierce Brosnan), and Rose is the one who first introduced them and still carries the torch for him. Rose likes to eat, and she and her best friend (Brenda Vaccaro) have accepted their station in life, and just coast along.

Greg (Jeff Bridges) is also a Columbia professor, of calculus and mathematics. He has just finished writing a boring book no one will ever read, and he puts his sparsely populated classes to sleep with his drivel. One thing that does stir him up are the number of beautiful women he beds, but who do not stick around for commitment. Greg tires of these trysts and decides to write a personal ad looking for an intelligent woman whose physical appearance is not important. Claire answers the ad in Rose's name, and Greg observes Rose teach a class, where she declares physical love ruins everything. Greg leaves before hearing that Rose wants that passion in a relationship, however, and Greg comes up with a new theory. He will find a woman and be her loving friend and companion, but not have physical relations with her because this obviously ruins everything. He asks Rose out on a date and she accepts.

The couple's circle of friends do not understand what these two are up to, and Greg and Rose grow as close as platonic dating adults can. Rose helps Greg become a better instructor and Greg helps Rose understand solid mathematical equations that have nothing to do with literature, although Greg certainly tries to apply their relationship to a formula and theorems. They take this experiment to the next level and marry.

Greg readies to leave on a European lecture series and Rose wants sex. Greg rejects her (the film's greatest scene), and she moves back to her mother's, not taking any of Greg's calls while he is overseas.

Rose decides she wants to be physically attractive, and begins losing weight. Her mother works as a makeup artist, and helps Rose become beautiful just as Greg returns home. Soon, more people are having problems with Rose's beauty than with her plain look, including a newly dumped Alex, and Greg discovers he cannot fight his feelings any longer. Will Rose believe that Greg fell in love with the old Rose, not the hot Rose?

Streisand does a good job directing, giving Bridges plenty of leeway and not completely hogging the camera for herself. The original story is based on an old French film, and it feels foreign to me. These characters do not exist in any world we know of, but in romantic-comedy-movie-land. It is hard to relate to them, much less be asked to put up with their oddball behavior.

The big name cast is reduced to small roles that could have been played by anyone. Bridges survives unscathed, although as he gets older he is looking more like his brother Beau. Streisand is fine, and there is a lot of raw emotion and insecurity when Rose begins confronting how she looks. The film needs some tightening here and there.

While I would slightly recommend the film, I wish Streisand would direct something with more weight. "The Prince of Tides" came close, and I would love to see what she could do behind the camera and not in front of it. She would probably be great with a Jane Campion or James Ivory-type property, I am thankful that she casts actual adults in her films and does not pander to the youth market. People over thirty are looking for love, too, and any romantic comedy that does not end at a big high school dance should be cheered.

"The Mirror Has Two Faces" is bland and innocuous, but in a good way. I did not hate it, I just wish there had been more heft to it. Considering the talent on both sides of the camera, there should have been. (* * *) out of five stars.