Picks and Pans Review: For the Boys

updated 12/02/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Belle Midler, James Caan

This is a big, sprawling movie with a schmaltzy showbiz heart at its center. You'll like it, but you won't respect yourself the next morning.

It is Midler's movie from start to finish—no surprise, since she produced it and hired as its director Mark Rydell, a sure-handed Hollywood veteran who helped her land an Oscar nomination for The Rose (1979). With Boys, Midler and Rydell have made, in the best sense, an old-fashioned movie, but one that keeps tripping on its overstuffed plot and jam-packed political agenda.

Boys is about the relationship, platonic with a one-night exception, between singer Dixie Leonard (Midler) and comedian Eddie Sparks (Caan), who team up to entertain troops during World War II. Fifty years (and 2 hours, 28 minutes) later, Dixie and Eddie have sung and spatted their way through an early '50s TV show, the Korean War, blacklisting, Vietnam and the combat deaths of Dixie's husband and son (inexplicably, the movie bypasses the civil rights movement). This is enough plot and polemicizing for three movies, and way too much for one.

Early in Boys, there's a long, bravura segment when Dixie first joins Eddie that will have you wishing Hollywood was making musicals again. Midler sings several great '40s songs, tells smutty jokes ("Alone in the dark with thousands of men—there is a god after all!") and toddles all over the stage in her signature high-heeled gait. This is the Bette Midler her early fans know and love, the bawdy Bette the formula-bound folks at Disney never gave complete rein to. (Boys is a Twentieth Century Fox film.) She's in top form here, in both the comic and the dramatic scenes, and Caan, to his credit, holds his own. (R)

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