Friday, February 17, 2017

Soapdish (1991)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: Michael Hoffman
Writers: Robert Harling, Andrew Bergman
Photography: Ueli Steiger
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Garth Craven
Cast: Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Shue, Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Cathy Moriarty, Garry Marshall, Leeza Gibbons, Teri Hatcher, Ben Stein, Carrie Fisher, Paul Johansson, John Tesh, Willie Garson

Sally Field started her career in television on Gidget and The Flying Nun, and capped the proudest moment of her life—a second Best Actress Oscar—with a famous declaration to the Academy at large, or perhaps the world, that "You like me, you really like me." All entertainment involving her may safely be categorized as light (in spite of the Oscars for serious dramatic roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart). The strength of Soapdish is exactly in this lightness. It's a chiffon of bubble bath foam erupting over the side of a hot-air balloon in a Rock Hudson vehicle. This is signaled from the beginning with the kodachrome titles reminiscent of all light '60s entertainment, Dobie Gillis, Where the Boys Are, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, My Three Sons, etc.

Fortunately for us, Soapdish is not quite as corny or factory-formed as any of that, though it is both corny and factory-formed. It's a satire of the soap opera industry, although even that is left behind by plot developments arriving at regular intervals from left field. Sally Field plays Celeste Talbert, a soap opera star who wins the soap opera equivalent of Emmys on a monotonous basis and has been in the business since she was a teen. Elisabeth Shue is Lori Craven, a temp worker who yearns to act and will do anything to break into the business. Kevin Kline is Jeffrey Anderson, a preening buffoon who puffs up holding court on the craft of acting. Robert Downey Jr. is—look, did I mention this is a star-studded cavalcade?



Just peruse the cast list above. There's a familiar face around every corner. Cathy Moriarty is better known for her breakthrough (and practically only decent) performance in Raging Bull. Carrie Fisher is in her comfort zone as a high-flying executive producer with deep cleavage and her own casting couch. Teri Hatcher as Ariel Maloney as Dr. Monica Demonico gnaws down the last pillars holding up the soundstage. You know Ben Stein as the droning high school teacher from Ferris Bueller who went on to become a droning conservative pundit. There are so many people swimming in and out of scenes here I somehow missed Willie Garson. But I'm pretty sure he was funny, because everybody here is, generally speaking.

And what's going on? Well, they're all having fun, that's what. Director Michael Hoffman has no particular standout credits at this point—iMDb has him down as best known for One Fine Day, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Last Station, and The Best of Me, none of which I think I've seen, though all seem vaguely familiar too. In Soapdish, Hoffman mostly seems to be liberating people to chew the scenery in their own provocative individual ways. The story developments batter you senseless so there's little time for wondering what the ruck.

Thing is, it all kind of works for me. Sally Field goes into a fake boo-hoo-hooing about every five minutes and it wears you down. It's comical. I like her, I really like her. Whoopi Goldberg as staff writer Rose Schwarz slips at will into sputtering ancient comedy routines, as if by instinct. She's almost back to doing stand-up, although not that well. Leeza Gibbons, Entertainment Tonight TV host, plays Leeza Gibbons, Entertainment Tonight TV host. She's flawless. Moriarty as Montana Moorehead is a roaring dick-eating monster (and ultimately an unfortunate stereotype), an ambitious player on the soap opera who schemes in every way possible to get Celeste written off the show. The soap opera, by the way, is called The Sun Also Sets. It competes with another soap opera called All My Trials. Wonderful titles. By the way, Downey is relatively under control, like Gibbons—a professional no matter what the state of his legal standing.

I'm not even going to try to explain the plot because really it's there to be discovered. It's an unlikely love story but don't hold that against it. It earns everything the old-fashioned way. This is a nice movie to keep in your back pocket for when you are felled by cold or flu or insomnia and it's on cable somewhere. As with Lifetime TV movies, there's something soothing about its familiar sitcom rhythms and yet the plot twists are surprising enough that it keeps you diverted. Also, in Soapdish, you really don't know when someone is actually going to be funny. It happens more often than you might expect.

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