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‘Soapdish’ (PG-13)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 31, 1991
There are those who can't get enough of Sally Field. They will undoubtedly love "Soapdish." In this soap-opera spoof, she works herself into an emotional lather of perky bubblings, tremulous sobbings and other crowd-endearing tactics.
A fading star on the longtime serial "The Sun Also Sets," Field is also the unwitting object of a behind-the-scenes plot to end her career. Sleazy producer Robert Downey Jr. wants to squeeze her out to make way for schemer Cathy Moriarty, a supporting performer on the show.
When aspiring starlet and Field relative Elisabeth Shue flukes her way into the daytime soap, real-life melodrama invades the set. Field is horrified that a family member has fallen this low. When malicious Downey scripts Field's ex-lover Kevin Kline back into the show, all hell breaks loose. Romantic bad blood between Kline and Field reaches the boiling point. Then Kline falls for Shue and things get even hotter.
The idea behind this Aaron Spelling production is that the divisions between life on and off the air smudge hilariously. Director Michael Hoffman keeps the shenanigans at giddy momentum, so there won't be time to focus on anything. Things speed towards their inevitable post-"Tootsie" climax: Those Field-Kline-Shue bickerings finally explode in the middle of a live show. To Downey's and Moriarty's chagrin, ratings soar.
Writers Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman powder the movie with funny lines. But there's something forced and trite about the exercise. A takeoff on soap operas is practically redundant. Daytime shows and other teasable subjects, from goose-stepping Nazis to hypocritical televangelists, do such a number on themselves, it's overkill to make fun of them.
This is the least of the movie's constraints. "Soapdish" is unbearably taken with itself. It's also crowded with characters attempting to persuade you that things are wonderfully wacky.
"This is [bleeping] great," mutters Downey, when those Field-Kline histrionics reach fever pitch.
"This is what I want," says head of TV programming Garry Marshall, as he watches the on-air nuttiness. "This is what I told them to do. This is soap opera."
Kline, who showed his comedic abilities in "A Fish Called Wanda," makes his moments count. Banished to years of Willy Loman in dinner theater, he returns to the "Sun" show with a comic vengeance. Whoopi Goldberg is also amusing as the show's head writer.
"Actors don't like to play in a coma," she asserts at a story conference. "They feel it limits their range."
Downey plays his cartoonish role with understated success. When Field has a prima-donna fit at the costume designer, he walks up to the petrified costumer and says matter-of-factly: "You're fired."
After a torturous moment, he gently adds, "Just kidding."
On another occasion, Downey is pressed to explain the miraculous recovery of a fictional character who was decapitated in a previous episode. Without skipping a beat, he insists the severed head was successfully reinstated "in a precedent-setting two-day operation."
Lines like this are amusing, but they pop instantly, like soap bubbles. For many, this will be just the ticket. But for those who cringe at shameless pandering, this movie will leave nothing but a soapy aftertaste.
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