Home Box Office may have invented a new genre with its "HBO Premiere Films": Afterschool Specials for Adults. Actually, many of the movies made for free TV are similar in design; an angst-age social or psychological problem is personified by a marginally interesting character or group of characters whose story is told cryptically if not clinically, then wrapped up with a moral that will, if all goes well, substantiate a banality that is already a widely held middle-class truism.
"Between Friends," the HBO film premiering Sunday night on the pay-cable system, and naturally showing about a thousand times within ensuing weeks, oozes trendiness, from the first note of James Horner's drearily eighth-rate Golden-Pondy score (the solo piano, the soulful strings), to the final inevitable hugs and tears that we know the two glamorous costars, Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett, are going to share.
The film also falls kerploppity into the category of same-sex chic. Taylor and Burnett play recent divorce's--zaftig Deborah Shapiro and Realtor Mary Castelli--who approach their newfound freedom and newfound panic in different ways; Mary sleeps around, and around, and around with married men, and Deborah shacks up with a 275-pound bald executive.
But the women find fade-out fulfillment when, really, they have eliminated men from their lives and can embrace each other, facing their own fears and realizing their self-worths and all that other pop-psych slop. You probably couldn't make a movie right now that says men are men's best friends unless it was about gay men, but the sexual times are such that movies about everywoman needing another everywoman are seen as sagaciously revelatory.
"The Turning Point" was probably the turning point for this kind of thing.
A very early scene in the film finds the two women all-too-conveniently stranded by a snowstorm (writers Shelley List and Jonathan Estrin whipped that one up), and hunkering down in their furs by the fireplace to exchange murmured personal secrets. Mary remembers warmly that she held hands with another girl in the fifth grade--if only we could all go back to those days, eh? (eh?). The two persist in exchanging intimacies throughout the picture. Burnett says things like, "Sex is power. It makes me feel powerful." And Taylor says, "I want a husband. I want to go to the cheese shop and bring brie home for someone."
The writers also give Taylor some salty talk meant to make the character seem refreshingly blunt. She talks about her uterus and finding a gray pubic hair, and one reminiscence is joined in progress as Taylor says, "So there I was in the stirrups . . . " What a caution. It's all so laboriously self-conscious as to be mortifying.
Eventually the problems afflicting the two women are narrowed down to dreadful obviousness. Deborah drinks too much, and this gives Taylor the chance to roar through not one but two mad scenes, the first at a bookstore where she begins reciting Whitman's "Oh Captain, My Captain" hysterically, and the other at a party that she ruins by going shrewishly bonkers and insulting the tubby bore she had referred to as her "beau." And Mary soon learns what all promiscuous people soon learn--at least in the movies--and that is that there is no substitute for, choke, a Deep Commitment to another human being.
Burnett brings nothing new to this role she hasn't already offered in other films or in sketches on her television show; it's a sleepwalk for her, and for the audience. Taylor's part seems designed to exploit her star luster and some of the previous, and better, parts she has played. In closeups, of which there are too few, Taylor is glisteningly beautiful, but director Lou Antonio is cruel enough to photograph her in long shot clomping down a hallway and spilling out of a red dress at every available exit. References to the fatness of her boyfriend seem nastily mischievous.
At an hour and 39 minutes--almost precisely the length of a two-hour TV movie with commercials (HBO will peddle this through syndication to regular TV later)--the film lollygags arduously, and while specific turns of event are not precisely predictable, the emotional modulations are--numbingly. You know just when that darn piano is going to come tippytoeing back in, you know precisely what shattering truths the two women will have to face, and you know that in the last frames they'll end up safely smothered in each other's loving arms. You don't need Kleenex with this picture; you need air.