One of my favorite moviegoing experiences is when I’m not sure that I’m going to like the picture, but it tells me everything that I can expect from it in the first five minutes. Most B-grade action movies are this way, but so were The Color of Money and The Big Lebowski.* As it was with the 1991 comedy Soapdish; if you’re not laughing by the time Sally Field waters her ex-boyfriend’s plants with household bleach, you can safely leave the movie and know that you won’t miss anything. For the record, I was laughing.
The jokes that you get in those first five minutes are all about the ridiculousness of soap operas, and like I said before: if you’re not laughing early on, you can get out, because there’s a lot more of the same coming, on the issues of…
- Plots which somehow are hopelessly complex and idiotically simple at the same time;
- Casting which puts a model-beautiful person in every single role (even the extras) and takes every possible opportunity to get the guys’ shirts off;
- Dialogue which goes way beyond “purple” and into “indigo” or “magenta”;
- Acting which … I mean, I don’t even know how to describe it;
…and plenty more. It’s not just soap operas either; the movie understands that every actor who doesn’t become a superstar faces the same kinds of problems. Jokes like “Actors don’t like to play comas … they feel it limits their range” could just as easily apply to films or nighttime TV.
Field plays Celeste Talbert, a forty-something soap opera legend who’s just starting to realize the limits of that world: she’s getting too old for a business that likes fresh faces, her 28-year-old costar (Cathy Moriarty) and producer (Robert Downey Jr.) are scheming to remove her from the show, and the best way to keep her spirits up is to drive into a New Jersey mall with her head writer (Whoopi Goldberg) and troll for autographs. As part of their scheme, Moriarty and Downey bring a new actress (Elisabeth Shue) and an old actor (Kevin Kline) onto the show, but things get complicated when they turn out to have personal ties to Celeste.
So right there you see the big thing that Soapdish has going for it: a murderer’s row of actors in its cast. Today that group has nine total Oscar nominations and four wins; Field, Goldberg, and Kline had all won their awards by the time it came out. Since the movie is a farce, it requires that every single cast member chew the scenery to the maximum for laughs. They’re all up to the task, to the point that I wondered how many of them had been on soap operas early in their careers (only Kline). The weak link is Shue, who seems way too sincere and not nearly bonkers enough, but even she is funny in a couple scenes.
So Mark, you might be saying, you loved this movie, right? Actually, no. I loved the first 45 minutes or so, when the movie is a high-octane comedy where every actor except Shue is going all-out. But then a plot twist is introduced that turns the movie’s TV-drama into real-life-drama. Suddenly, the triangle of Field-Kline-Shue can’t decide whether or not they’re in a comedy or a serious relationship movie.
There’s a scene where Field watches from afar as Shue finally faces the press like a star ought to, and embraces her stardom; soon afterward, Field and Kline have a scene where she teaches him how to show sincere emotion by pretending that it’s an acting lesson. Both scenes are good – I would even say that in the latter scene, Field and Kline are spectacular – but they aren’t funny. This movie spends considerable effort trying to get us to laugh, but then it sets up its third act by throwing a lot of those laughs away.
Maybe if everyone in the movie had gotten serious at the same time, I would have been okay with the switch. But they don’t; Moriarty keeps vamping and Downey keeps kvetching just the same as at the beginning of the movie. A scene in which Field has a big meltdown on-camera is a good indicator of what I’m talking about: it starts with her doing big slapstick, jumping onto Kline’s back and wailing, but it ends with a really weirdly sincere confession. I wasn’t sure what I should be thinking by the end of this scene, and I spent most of the third act of this movie wondering if I had been sold a bill of goods. Fortunately, they switch back to mostly straight comedy for the wild climax.
It’s kind of a catch-22. Thirteen years after Soapdish came out, Will Ferrell would conclusively prove that a comedy doesn’t have to turn serious. Anchorman showed that a movie can just be ridiculous all the way through, and audiences will buy tickets and laugh. I think I would have been happier if Soapdish had gone that route, and just poked fun at absurd soap opera conventions for 100 minutes. On the other hand, you might not be able to assemble a cast like this for a completely unserious film, so maybe it evens out. If a little tonally-bizarre drama is the price I have to pay for getting Sally Field and Kevin Kline in the movie, I’ll pay it gladly.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*To be fair, I kind of expected The Big Lebowski to be good. The Coen Brothers’ previous movie was Fargo, after all.