Two-Faced Review: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most pathetically self-obsessed of all? From all appearances in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," no one can top Barbra Streisand.

November 15, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In "The Mirror Has Two Faces," Barbra Streisand takes on one of the key issues of our time: What is the proper way to love Barbra Streisand?

She finally reaches a state of philosophical purity and zen transcendence that enables her to conclude humbly: "Don't love me for my beauty. No, love me for my compassion, my intelligence, my talent."

But then she thinks it over and adds: "Oh, OK. Go ahead. Love me for my beauty." Less a film than a long, two-hour Barbra infomercial, the movie is meant to be a romantic comedy on the theme of appearance vs. character, but it turns quickly into something far more rancid: an exercise in obsessive mirror-gazing and self-mythologizing that comes to feel icky. It has a toxic taint of vanity uncontrolled. It gave me the creeps, not merely because of its director's fascination with herself but, just as bad, her lack of interest, her lack of charity, her lack of engagement toward her co-stars.

The movie is basically a series of snippy rebukes: All who in any way disrespect Columbia English professor and Streisand alter-ego Rose Morgan are corrected after a rite of humiliation. Rose, it turns out, is perfect, has always been perfect, and, after her $10,000 make-over and $50,000 new wardrobe, is even more perfect. Nothing second-hand about this Rose!

When first we discover her, Rose is a frump in a muddle of baggy brown clothes, much disrespected by glamorous mother (Lauren Bacall), sexy sister (Mimi Rogers) and schlumphy boyfriend (Austin Pendleton). Yet she's still cuddly and adorable, particularly when she performs a stand-up routine on "The Meaning of Love" in front of a packed audience of (naturally) adoring kids at one of Columbia's lecture halls, possibly the most bizarre academic sequence filmed since Francis the Talking Mule lectured at West Point, and an instant kitsch classic of self-aggrandizement. Now, what course would this be? "Introduction to Danielle Steele"? "Romantic Cliche 101"?

Definitely unattracted to Rose (big mistake) is handsome, boring math professor Greg Larkin (Jeff Bridges). But that's not bad, that's good. Greg is hunting for a woman he is not attracted to, to marry. After too many crash-and-burn endings to too many affairs and too many broken hearts (wahhhhhhhh!) he wants friendship, not sex. He wants her to stand by him, but not lay by him. After a few platonic dates, they marry, more as a clinical proposition than a reflection of love. But, living together, he begins to see the beauty under the muddle. Then the movie gets very strange: He's made to represent the somewhat baffling position that sex between husband and wife ruins things and thus he flees l'amour's physical ritual, unleashing much frustration in her life.

But the film pretty much makes an idiot out of Bridges: His motives are never really explained, because they can't be, and he's made to talk in a high, wheedling voice, to stutter and yammer like an infantile dweeb, and to appear generally pitiful throughout. It's equally unkind to poor Mimi Rogers, as Rose's pretty, unpleasantly cynical, amoral sister, whose marriage (to hunk Pierce Brosnan) is revealed to be a sham. Rogers is photographed in a particularly harsh, cold light; she looks recently embalmed. At the same time, the movie is an endless litany of close-ups of La Streisand, portrayed with such adoration she seems to have become not merely a madonna but the madonna and Madonna at once. Where is Michelangelo when you need him?

At the three-quarter point, "The Mirror Has Two Faces" lurches into melodrama and spends a few minutes with the various members of the Morgan family hurling recriminations at each other. This is unpleasant, but not so unpleasant as the film's overall subtext, which is its star and director's obsession with her own looks and what the world makes of them. Alas, it comes to feel hypocritical in the extreme. She doesn't want to be just another pretty face, but she does want to be a pretty face. Which is it? The movie, like its star, contradicts itself all over the place.

'The Mirror Has Two Faces'

Starring Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges

Directed by Barbra Streisand

Released by Tri-Star

Rating PG-13 (sexual situations)

Sun score **

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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