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Matthew Perry probably doesn’t want his performance in a major motion picture to be considered in terms of his performance in the inexplicably trendy sitcom Friends, but tough. It has been noted before than none of these actors, so engaging en masse, can work up any oomph individually, carrying a big-screen production.

The problem may not be the young folks themselves, but the type of movie they all believe will catapult them to stardom—dopey romantic comedies for callow law-school students (except for Matt LeBlanc’s baseball/chimp flick, Ed, about which the less said the better). After seeing Fools Rush In, I have no idea whether Perry should quit his day job—the culture described by either is not interesting to me.

Fools Rush In is another commitment fantasy for noncommittal boys. Perry plays Alex Whitman, a very white man who designs nightclubs for a Manhattan firm. In hopes of landing a plum job designing a midtown joint, he accepts a job erecting the glitzy “blvd” in fabulous Las Vegas. His first night there he visits a restaurant and meets an overripe Mexican beauty (Salma Hayek) who impresses him with her ability to “pee fast.”

The beginning does not bode well; it kicks off with one of those oh-so-fresh homo misunderstanding scenes at the office Christmas party involving two straight young guys and a surprised interloper. Meanwhile, Hayek is introduced by way of her breasts (under a wet white shirt), lounging curvaceously in a pond in Central Mexico, where there’s obviously nothing better to do.

After their one-night stand, the speed picks up and the script smartens up; they both begin to act like human beings. Three months later, trying to wow the Nevada ABC commissioner without jumping into bed with her, Alex is interrupted by a visit from Isabel Fuentes, the girl he never expected to see again. She’s pregnant.

Tennant’s direction is sure and steady. He makes the most of the gorgeous Vegas setting—just ask Francis Ford Coppola how camera-ready that city is when you’re in love—keeps the pace brisk (it’s still too long; everything is) and the action seamless. In the soft desert light, where even the preponderance of neon looks otherworldly and romantic, Alex gets his head turned. He wants to marry Isabel, culture gap notwithstanding.

This could have been a lot worse. There is no scene, for example, in which he takes her shopping for clothes (even baby clothes), and there is no scene in which she teaches him to dance. Yes, they do go to her family’s house for dinner, which turns out to be one of those densely populated, life-loving fiestas of abundance that earthy people are always having. And her scary cop ex-fiancé is the kind of guy who makes a hushed, menacing scene and then shouts, “What happened to the musica?” to everyone’s vast relief.

But for the most part, Fools Rush In consists of long stretches of enjoyable fluff punctuated by terribly smart laugh-out-loud moments. Perry is likable if not exactly mold-breaking; he has lost most of his strained-yuppie TV tics, but he still dips his knees for emphasis. Hayek is as beautiful as a person can be without actually being drawn by Varga, and her performance indicates that the dim-bulb sexpot act she’s been putting on for paparazzi is not only career-crampingly stupid but inaccurate. In the Christine Baranski tradition, the redheaded best friend (Siobhan Fallon) gets off some wonderfully saucy lines, including a choker about Las Vegas “growing on you” that she intones while drinking Bud from the bottle—I still can’t figure out how she did it.

Alex and Isabel meet each other’s parents—her father is sick with rage over their “fake” marriage in an Elvis-themed wedding chapel (watch it, pal—that’s where I got married); the Whitmans assume Isabel to be Alex’s maid. Her parents meet his parents on a disastrous nautical outing that climaxes in a terrific visual punch line. No one’s happy for them, it seems, and even the couple’s union begins to splinter when Alex’s work beckons him back to Manhattan and Isabel ends up hospitalized with complications.

Of course, such a separation—his urban loneliness is intercut in mournful montage with her desert misery—shows up right on time to make the reunion that much sweeter. Fools Rush In pulls no punches; they appear to lose everything—baby, marriage, jobs—before they gain it all back and more. The executive secretaries with The Rules hidden in their briefcases will dream and sigh over this valentine to being a romantic free spirit and staying on the fast track. What their dates will think is another matter.

The Beautician and the Beast is no more fanciful than Fools Rush In—it’s structured along precisely the same lines—and only a notch or two lower in quality. Fran Drescher plays herself playing television’s Nanny Fine playing Joy Miller, a Queens beautician with loads of hair, gritty optimism, and brassy charm. Joy may live with her nagging, smothering parents, she may teach cosmetology night school, she may not have landed her dream job of makeup mistress to the Lotto bunny, but this girl is going places, at least in her vivid daydreams. She’s a big-mouth princess who claims she doesn’t need a prince. But it would be nice to be asked.

A freak accident in the lab (furtive cigarette, hairspray) grants Joy some unexpected celebrity; she makes the cover of a tabloid for rescuing lab animals—what they were doing in beauty school is a question left unanswered—and attracts the attention of an Eastern European dictator who is looking for a tutor for his four children. He assumes she’s a science teacher; she isn’t about to turn down a $40,000 chance to live in what she artfully calls “Europe.” Wackiness ensues.

Look, there are worse ways to spend two hours (it’s rather long) than watching Fran Drescher mince around in an endless procession of twin sets, sleeveless tops, and tight capris, most of these in light-reflecting Shantung silk. Wearing her trademark look of slightly appalled self-confidence, Drescher is a treat processing the dour Stalin-era world she’s stepped into, and it’s lovely to hear her bray “Svet-laaaaa-na!” across an open meadow. Joy (why did they give her that goyische name? Hel-lo!) simply refuses to believe in much of what she sees; in her heart she’s a princess, and the massive, oppressive grayness of Slovetzia just shouldn’t exist.

Perfectly equipped for the job of busting the kids out of their communist neuroses, Joy plays The Sound of Music’s Maria as a bargain-and-skin-care-conscious fairy godmother to the little von Trapps, while cold, stern Daddy looks on in traditional disapproval. Daddy is President-for-Life Boris Pochenko, pariah of Western media and iron-fisted pre-glasnost-era holdout. Behind his Stalin mustache, of course, he’s Timothy Dalton, with all the nice bones and straight posture, and it is to Dalton’s credit that, given some freedom to relax here, he occasionally outacts the nine-story granite statue in his likeness in the presidential courtyard (Dalton’s the short one).

Soon, the children are learning the finer points of cheap airline travel (math), making dried-macaroni art (shop), and repeating such mantras as “Rays today, raisins tomorrow” (field trip). Joy begins to break down Boris’ stuffy ways and bring some light to the gloomy old government building. Todd Graff’s screenplay isn’t as dumb as it could have been; Joy’s not a dizzy life force, she’s a sensible one. She understands too well the hunger for adoration, but the house-of-mirrors Soviet-style version of reality hasn’t turned her head. “All that phony hero worship,” she carps at the fearless leader. “How can that be satisfying?”

For all her eccentricity, Joy is Everygirl living out every girl’s soppiest fantasy, even if it is couched in gray concrete. Kwapis’ clever direction toys with making spun-sugar castles out of such a grim setting. When she visits a factory, the music begins a glorious thumping march, and she takes off her sunglasses and looks up in wonder like an ingenue getting her first glimpse of Fifth Avenue.

In an almost surreally telling moment, after one of Boris’ meaningless speeches to the cheering masses Joy strides up to the mike and casts her arms out triumphantly. The crowd lets loose with the same enthusiastic roar. “I always wanted to do that,” she tells Boris. In an age in which so many leading ladies are muddle-headed twits, predatory fleshpots, or monuments to nurturing, it is very satisfactory to watch brash, ballsy Drescher get to do what she’s always wanted.CP