Plutarch has a story about an Athenian who cut off the tail of a very expensive dog in his kennel for no other reason but this, to give his fellow citizens something to tell each other about him and leave him alone. Mark Twain turned the tale into Pudd’nhead Wilson, who acquired his moniker the day he arrived in a small town and told a joke nobody understood.

MacLaine has the genius to tell “The Ugly Duckling” from the point of view of the ducks. Thus, Bruno wants to be an etymologist when he grows up, but is pursued by an angel in his dreams and takes to wearing dresses for the powers they confer on him.

Billy Mumy in Dear Brigitte was tone-deaf and color-blind in a family of geniuses, but he had a gift of his own. His father, nevertheless, had the same look of consternation that Gary Sinise has here, gazing at his offspring. Still, the child is shocking in a way that cannot be understood. He speaks of “a state of grace,” but is altogether without pretension or perversity.

He enters the spelling bee at the Catholic school he attends, and wins. It’s off to the finals in Washington, D.C., where First Prize is a Vatican trip.

Does the Pope wear a leisure suit? Martin Ritt had 43 of them in his closet, all he wore. The joke is that Bruno’s mother, who is very fat and yet has pretensions to fashion, sews him a special gown for the occasion, like Gena Rowlands’ father “standing up” for her in A Woman Under the Influence. There is a further influence of Cassavetes’ Gloria in some subtle evocations.

We don’t know until the very end of a very famous Twilight Zone episode what the plastic surgery patient looks like, or what anyone looks like. The critics, who never fail to miss a punchline, did not get into the act. The film was not shown in theaters at all.