Unimaginative 'Soapdish' offers slapstick instead of sudsy satire


May 31, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring Sally Field, Kevin Kline and Robert Downey Jr.

Directed by Michael Hoffman.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2 stars. "Soapdish" dishes dirt, not soap. On a cheesily imagined network soap opera, it pays attention to who's sleeping with whom and for what; who hates whom and why; who's betrayed whom and how. It's office politics, show-biz style, turned into French farce and geek tragedy.

It would help if Sydney Pollock's great "Tootsie" hadn't already trod the same ground more deftly in the recent movie memory. There isn't much that director Michael Hoffman thinks up that Pollock hasn't done earlier, better.

Now and then the piece lumbers into a state of comic grace. More frequently, however, it's playing slapstick with Sally Field, whose boundless zest for contorting herself into grotesque postures the movie enjoys far more passionately than the audience. The Sallyshtick includes falling, grasping, limping, fainting and weeping. But pardon the heresy, she doesn't seem to me to be too well cast: Sally Field, after all, is always Sally Field, and she has pep and vim and spunk and cheer and a twerpy kind of bonhomie, but she lacks that brazen self-seriousness, that dimension of dithering narcissism so crucial to the grand dame persona, which she is asked to fill here.

Field is Celeste Talbot, prima donna of "The Sun Also Sets," a highly rated soap opera. Her life is one mess after another, primarily because her producer, an unctuous Robert Downey Jr., and the show's sexpot, Cathy Moriarty, are plotting to overthrow her. There's something in it for each of them: for her, stardom; for him, her.

But -- the central comic stroke of the piece -- each time they play a trick on her, it rebounds to her greater glory and their greater frustration. The first trick goes awry when the homeless person-character she's ordered to "murder" on the air turns out to be her niece (Elizabeth Shue, with the squarest face this side of Max Headroom) and the two embrace in ratings-goosing reconciliation; the niece goes on to become a show regular.

The next gambit is to bring in a lover she'd dismissed 20 years back, in hopes of getting her goat. He's Kevin Kline, in full comic glory (and the best thing in the picture) and he instantly brings the kind of spark the show was desperately in need of. In fact, he doesn't only save the show, he saves the movie.

I'll spare you the comic twist that unites these three in the end, though . . . I figured it out earlier than anyone in the theater. Thanks, thanks, I know I'm brilliant, but you needn't send flowers, only money.

"Soapdish" lacks "Tootsie's" wickedly accurate milieu; its backstage at a network soap always feels generic. It lacks also "Tootsie's" cleverness and clarity in the wonderful way "Tootsie" managed to sustain its soap opera plot as an ironic reflection of its behind-the-soap plot. "Soapdish" doesn't even try this dazzler; instead, its real-life plot butts the soap opera plot out of the movie and simply takes over.

The co-author, Robert Harlin, wrote "Steel Magnolias," and he showed a talent for zingy one liners. One would expect him, in the jungle of a soap, to have a picnic; and now and then he cracks off some memorable repartee, but the most amusing humor in the film derives from clever plotting rather than dialogue.

There's a final twist involving Cathy Moriarty that might actually be worth some of the dull spots leading up to it. And the wardrobe, by Nolan Miller, is perfectly awful, a thing of true ugliness. Now if the gowns had been designed by Nolan Ryan, they might have had something.

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