'For the Boys' blasts off with dynamite, but fizzles with overly dramatic plot

MOVIE REVIEW

November 27, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

A review of "For the Boys" Wednesday incorrectly identified the film's studio. It was made by Twentieth Century Fox.

* The Sun regrets the error.

Of course "For the Boys" isn't really for the boys or for the girls; it's for the dopes.

An tear-jerker that never nudges when it can pound and never pounds when it can smash, it does offer seven or so minutes of dynamite music and several neat explosions.

When Bette Midler teeters onstage in an RAF tunic on a set of legs that might have been borrowed from Betty Grable, then rocks back on her (very high) heels and lets her pipes blow out the rafters and the boys of 26th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, Somewhere in Europe, go nuts, the movie is pure heaven. She's like a sassy B-17 nose painting -- "Brooklyn Belle"? -- come to life: She makes you want to go back to Schweinfurt a second time, even if you've flown your 25th mission.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

L But that's as good as it gets. And that's in the first reel!

Midler stars as Dixie Leonard, a lounge singer whose break arrives when she's summoned to London to fill in on a USO tour with the great comedian and song-and-dance man, Eddie Sparks, played by James Caan in a matinee-idol mustache and somebody's idea of wavy hair. The movie is like a series of post cards from famous American wars, but nothing else is developed, except for a brief work-up of live television in the early '50s, where Midler has her liveliest comedy spin. Then it's off to the Chosin Reservoir in the next few seconds.

Underneath, "For the Boys" means to contrast two kinds of American sensibilities. Eddie is old-school, a trooper who is on the road to sanctimony. He's meant to call up Bob Hope. It doesn't help that he is to Hope as miserliness is to Charity: the opposite.

But worse, his devotion to the baser chords of Country and Patriotism is unbending. He's a Jumping Johnny Jingo, who can reach the boys of WWII, but is still trying the same schtick on their sons, the more rebellious and irritable grunts of the 'Nam. Midler, on the other hand, gets to deliver all the war-is-futile speeches, always a crowd-pleaser.

This is fascinating stuff, but, needless to say, it isn't fairly argued. To represent the argument in flesh, the movie provides Midler with a son. As the script lumpily has it, he gravitates from her clinginess to Eddie's phony-macho horsehockey,and ends up a captain in the First Cav at a precarious firebase. And, as both fate and bad screenwriting would have it, she and Eddie end up there to put on a show.

This gives Midler the chance to sing "In My Life" a cappella, the movie's second great moment.

I'll spare you explicit acknowledgment of who dies, but if you're a fan of cheap melodrama you'll figure it out. It's one of several manipulations that serve to so synthesize the goings-on that the movie seems as phony as a thirteen dollar bill.

For the Boys

Starring Bette Midler and James Caan.

Directed by Mark Rydell.

Released by Columbia.

Rated PG-13.

**

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