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Overall Rating

Awesome: 21.43%
Worth A Look: 14.29%
Pretty Bad: 7.14%
Total Crap: 7.14%

1 review, 8 user ratings

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For the Boys
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by Andrew Howe

"Surprisingly palatable, but only with a grain of salt"
3 stars

When scriptwriters are torn between the story they want to tell and the story they have to tell, you invariably end up with a film that makes you feel guilty about enjoying it. For the Boys is lumbered with a manipulative and contrived narrative that’s difficult to recommend, but if you let it get under your skin you might be surprised to find yourself developing an emotional investment in its depiction of a star-crossed partnership that spans the last half of the twentieth century.

The film chronicles the relationship between self-professed “song-and-dance man” Eddie Sparks (James Caan) and singer Dixie Leonard (Bette Midler). When the film opens Eddie’s found his niche entertaining the troops during WWII, doing his best Bob Hope impersonation courtesy of writer Art Silver (George Segal). Art is Dixie’s uncle, and in a classic act of showbiz nepotism she gatecrashes Eddie’s grand tour of British aircraft hangers. Their first show ends in heated words, an argument they continue for the better part of fifty years as they work their way through two more wars and into the hearts of domestic viewers via a 1950’s television variety hour.

Scriptwriting duties were shared by Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Annie Hall and Manhattan with Woody Allen and promptly disappeared from the map, and a couple of other scribes (Neal Jiminez and Lindy Laub) whose credibility in the field is unsullied by anything resembling commercial success. It’s obvious they couldn’t agree on a common vision - the quality of the on-screen action varies wildly (often within the same scene), and I suspect that one of them was trying to write a meditation on human suffering while the others were doing their level best to give the marketing department something to work with.

The first twenty minutes are undeniably the worst, serving up appalling dialogue, painful performances and a ludicrous attempt by the make-up department to age Midler by fifty years (if you ever wondered why Frank Darabont chose another actor to play the nursing-home version of Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile, you’ll find the answer here). Things pick up when the action shifts to Britain, around the time Caan comes out of hiding to make his mark on the film.

Caan was an actor who should have achieved greatness but never did, so he greets every performance as an opportunity to show us what we missed out on. Sparks isn’t a particularly likeable soul, but Caan brings a certain charm to a role that’s tailor-made for his talents. He’s right at home with Eddie’s emotional isolation and single-minded ambition, bringing to mind a used-car salesman who discovers that the marks are actually buying his manufactured sincerity. The script has no intention of guiding him down the road to redemption, but the occasional showdowns with his conscience add a human touch that allows us to tolerate (if not entirely enjoy) his company for the duration.

Midler can be a truly annoying actress when she puts her mind to it, but her character grows on you as the years roll by. The sassy demeanour that initially sets the teeth on edge is moderated by ill fortune, partnered with a bitter resignation that sits uncomfortably with the memory of her youthful bravado. Unfortunately, fostering a consistent chemistry is beyond the leads – they hit the high notes when they’re trading insults, but the sexual tension that would have lent credence to their long-standing attraction is absent without leave.

For a film that’s supposedly about a couple of entertainers who hit the big time, there’s precious little evidence of the reasons why. I wasn’t doing much of anything in 1943, so I can’t vouch for the soldiers’ rabid reaction to Eddie’s feeble attempts at humour (comedy was obviously a different beast back then), but it’s debateable whether Caan ever convincingly conveys the showmanship that elevated Sparks to dizzying heights of fame and fortune. Midler fares somewhat better, but none of her tunes could be described as show-stoppers, leaving us to wonder how either of them made a living when there wasn’t a war going on.

However, the singing and dancing occupies a surprisingly brief portion of the 140 minute running time. Despite frequent moments of levity (some hit the mark, others make you want to scream) it’s essentially a dramatic work, and it’s here the script betrays its muddled origins. There are some truly rotten scenes in this film – the Vietnam interlude is a mess of clichés (and includes the outlandish conceit of a hundred soldiers making the peace sign as a gesture of respect to Dixie’s rendition of In My Life), a sequence where Dixie is reunited with her husband is embarrassing when it should have been moving, and the jarring shift to the present day at the end of the film includes several ill-advised scripting decisions (am I really expected to believe these guys are so famous that 50 million people are going to tune in to their awards ceremony?)

And yet, despite it all, there are moments when you might find yourself moved beyond reasonable expectation. Encapsulating an entire life in a couple of hours is always a dicey proposition, but our innate awareness that the years are slipping by makes us naturally receptive to a film that follows its characters from the comparative optimism of early middle age to the long nights at the end of the line. The transitions are sweeping (fifteen years here, twenty-five there), sacrificing a coherent whole for a series of snapshots, but there’s enough on offer to provide us with an investment in the outcome. Every misstep is matched by a finely tuned observation on the human condition – Art’s reaction to being sacked in the name of expediency, Eddie’s refusal to admit that the times have changed and his talents haven’t changed with them, the final backstage showdown between the erstwhile partners, the entire Korean sequence – and it works its way to a manipulative but undeniably emotional climax that could conceivably end in tears.

For the Boys is a patchwork affair, jury-rigged and rough around the edges, but when it sings above its range its mournful tune might see you joining the characters in wondering where the years went. Caan and Midler are firing on all cylinders, insults to the intelligence are countered with shots to the heart, and like every good variety hour it comes with the standard proviso - see it, enjoy the high points, and try to forget the filler.

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originally posted: 06/25/02 21:42:15
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User Comments

12/19/11 Michael Goffredo Despite valiant efforts from the cast, this film was wholly contrived and unbelievable. 1 stars
12/11/06 Jenna Personally liked the poignancy of the drama that Caan and Midler created. Worth seeing! 4 stars
5/23/06 lisadlamm A very poignant film, especially given the current war. Midler is brilliant! 5 stars
10/05/05 Jesse Taylor One of the best of 1991. Bette Midler deserved an Oscar. The best performance of the year. 5 stars
6/18/05 Benjamin Dresner OK at best...Midler and Caan give good performances. 3 stars
3/05/02 Ashley this is a really good movie 4 stars
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  22-Nov-1991 (R)



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