Beauty Tips From Babs

IS BARBRA STREISAND BEAUTIFUL? THIS may not be a question that keeps you up at night, but it is one that Streisand herself keeps posing in movie after movie, on the assumption that her own self-doubt strikes a universal chord. The latest of her ugly duckling-turned-swan psychodramas is The Mirror Has Two Faces, an old-fashioned romantic comedy whose message of self-empowerment floats uneasily in an undercurrent of masochism and narcissism.

This time she's a wallflower professor of Romantic literature at Columbia University who lives at home with her vain, beauty-obsessed mother (Lauren Bacall, wonderfully insufferable). Mom has raised her daughter to think she's unworthy of romantic passion. Enter Jeff Bridges as a sexy but out-of-it math professor who's been so burned by torrid affairs that he's decided to seek a union that will be purely intellectual. No sex allowed.

She falls for the absent-minded hunk and creepily agrees to a platonic marriage. Needless to say, the homely professor (who's never that homely) discovers her self-esteem, undergoes a rapid-fire makeover (gym montage) and transforms herself into bombshell Barbra. Her estranged husband now has to face the odious challenge of being attracted to the woman he thought he loved for her soul.

The loopy contrivance of this plot is exacerbated by the broadness with which Streisand directs Richard LaGravenese's script. The slapstick manner collides queasily with the therapeutic tone, producing more embarrassment than charm. The biggest problem is Bridges's character, who might have made sense in a screwball '30s comedy but seems surreally obtuse in a '90s academic milieu. (The classroom scenes have to be seen to be disbelieved.) Even the message comes out upside down: Streisand means to criticize our unhealthy obsession with appearances, and ends up reinforcing it. Message to Barbra: You look great. Now can we please move on?