Bette Midler has had trouble finding movies big enough to contain her personality. Mugging her way through a recent string of confections, she has overwhelmed the material and her co-stars. But with For the Boys, Midler has found a vehicle luxurious enough to accommodate her talents. Sprawling over five decades and three wars, it is the saga of a fictional song-dance-and-comedy duo who make a career out of entertaining U.S. troops. It is a rich, vulgar Christmas cake of a movie, spiked with caustic humor and glazed with sticky sentiment—a movie in the image of its star. But, despite a predictable soap-opera plot with a crude antiwar message, For the Boys is entertaining. And Midler is sensational.
The movie unfolds as an extended flashback: an elderly, cantankerous star named Dixie (Midler) tells her life story to a young man trying to persuade her to appear on stage at a live television tribute. During the Second World War—“everybody’s big break,” Dixie sardonically recalls—she is hired to perform at a British airbase with Eddie Games Caan), an established star. With lewd repartee, she upstages him so thoroughly that he tries to have her fired. But his manager tells him that the two could be “bigger than Bums and Allen.” Indeed, Dixie and Eddie become a showbusiness legend. He is the straight man; she is the acid wit who can also soothe the warrior soul with a sweet song. Dixie and Eddie entertain troops in Korea and Vietnam, taking time out to star in a family sitcom that becomes a target of the Red Scare. Each conflict is uglier than the last. And as the years go by, the tragedy of war strikes close to home.
The comedy works better than the drama, and the stage sequences show Midler at her best. Caan, meanwhile, is excellent as the man Dixie calls “a world-class, solid-gold son of a bitch.” Mark Rydell, who cast Midler as an alcoholic singer in The Rose (1979), directs with a heavy hand. But the movie’s layered artifice, like the preposterous latex wrinkles used to age its characters, creates its own reality. And most remarkably, For the Boys succeeds in generating nostalgia for two celebrities who never existed.
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