Picks and Pans Review: Stella

updated 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Bette Midler, Trini Alvarado

(Attention, readers: This review is about a patronizing movie that telegraphs all its punches and then overthrows them.)

You might think the drama could speak for itself in a film about a pregnant unmarried woman who decides to have and raise her child on her own, having to deal with her child's youthful traumas, intervention by the child's father and her own problems of middle age.

But everything in this movie comes underlined, overstated, then restated, after which it is generously slathered with obvious background music.

Midler, as the mother, is such an extravagant actress that she is always on the verge of self-parody anyway, and given all the pushes from director John Erman's pedantic approach and Robert (Sweet Dreams) Getchell's erratic script, she often crosses over the line.

(Bette Midler has just been discussed and now is going to be discussed some more.)

Midler plays a bartender in a small, nondescript New York town, and the movie's early scenes, set in 1969 when she and a young doctor, Stephen Collins, meet and have an affair, are zesty and funny. Midler, for instance, tells Collins at one point that she knows the kind of thing people say about barmaids: "They're dirty/They're stupid/Their ankles are thick/So shut off your brains, boys/And reach for your d—-." When she tells Collins she's pregnant and he responds, "What are you going to do?" Midler spits out, "Shouldn't there be a 'we' in that sentence somewhere?"

(We have just passed the conciliatory paragraph where the reviewer shows he is not a totally heartless fiend and now move on to the rough stuff.)

The plot rapidly disintegrates though, and Erman (who directed the esteemed TV movie An Early Frost) tries to compensate with louder music, increasing histrionics and a cliché barrage, including that all-timer, "What do you want for you?" Barbara Stanwyck got away with playing this same character in Stella Dallas, but that was 1937. Naïveté was more in vogue back then, and audiences were much more likely to find outrageous plot twists tolerable than today's moviegoers are to accept the extreme eccentricities of this film.

In one of them, Midler accompanies her now-teenage daughter, Alvarado, on a vacation trip to Florida and embarrasses the girl with a ridiculous, out-of-character escapade in a bar on the beach. Everyone's scornful reaction seems as exaggerated and unconvincing as the incident itself.

(We're talking silly. Foolish. Gratuitous. Way overboard. Extraneous. Doesn't know when to stop.)

Collins is likable, despite being saddled with a running gesture that is sure to go down in movie history as a memorable piece of unconscious comedy. In every other scene or so with his daughter, from little girl to sophisticated teen, he points to his shoulder and says to her, "I think you need to put your head right here."

Further damage control comes from John Goodman, doing his oafy number as Midler's lifelong friend-lover, and from Marsha Mason, sympathetic as the woman who becomes Collins's fiancée.

But Alvarado (Rich Kids, Mrs. Soffel) appears to be surly even when she's supposed to be in a good mood, and Midler is way over-madeup at the end to simulate middle-age frumphood. More destructively, Midler's ultimate decision to force Alvarado to go live with her more socially acceptable father makes no sense (the girl is about to go off to college anyway, for one thing). The concluding scenes, intended to generate maximum heartbreak, end up producing reactions a lot closer to the belly-laugh department.

(Still love ya, Bette sweetie. Better luck next time.)—(PG-13)

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