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‘Soapdish’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 31, 1991

"Soapdish" is pure joy, a lemon-fresh spoof of daytime drama that does the dishing and may even soften your hands. An uproarious look behind the scenes of a fictional soap opera, it soaks the conventions of the genre with unfailing zest to leave a shine so bright you can see your face in it -- art mirroring life and all that.

Written by Robert Harling of "Steel Magnolias" and Andrew Bergman of "Blazing Saddles," it is a kind of Blazing Magnolias with Sally Field and Cathy Moriarty as rival divas on "The Sun Also Sets." Field is marvelously shallow as the reigning queen of bubbledom, Celeste, a bitch goddess thrown off-kilter by the machinations of the ferocious Moriarty. The actresses and their characters go after their roles with the freedom of gals who have just shucked their girdles.

But then "Soapdish" seems akin to a playground for all its stars. A dizzy ensemble piece directed by Michael Hoffman, it also finds Kevin Kline at the top of his form as a former soap star, Jeffrey, who is currently playing Willy Loman at a Florida steak 'n' play house for mostly deaf patrons. Poor Jeffrey has been unable to make a comeback since his legendary feud with Celeste. And then to his delight he is invited to return to the series.

Never mind that his character was decapitated, says the show's producer (Robert Downey Jr.) to his chief writer (Whoopi Goldberg). She tries to explain that the character can't talk because he no longer has a head, but the slippery young executive is undeterred. In league with Moriarty's blond dominatrix, he hopes to bump Celeste from the show. Instead, the move provokes a fiery reconciliation between Celeste and Jeffrey, and "The Sun Also Sets" becomes even more popular than before.

Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher and Teri Hatcher join the party as an extra, the casting director and a third-string diva. Garry Marshall, who directed "Pretty Woman," is wryly on target with a toothy portrayal of a bottom-line-oriented network executive with a heart. "Cheap and peppy, cheap and peppy," he intones. A facile Hollywood type, he hopes to make the show more socially relevant by adding a huddle of attractive homeless people.

The plot of the TV show spins about like laundry in a dryer but is no less strange than the ups and downs in the players' not-so-private lives. An overstuffed celebration of the happy improbabilities of life, it is reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar's frenzied "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." So too is Hoffman's quirkily melodramatic direction, which he pioneered in the inventive but unsuccessful "Some Girls" and "Promised Land."

Considering the intricacy of the plot and how easy comedy is to belabor, "Soapdish" is amazingly streamlined and coherent. A new and improved approach to summer comedy, it brightens as it lightens the days of our lives.

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