BetteBack: City Slicker vs Country Slacker

Monday, Jun. 13, 1988
Cinema: Country Girls vs. Manhattan Ladies BIG BUSINESS

High Concept is the no-fault insurance of the entertainment business, a brief description that both sells and sums up a movie or TV show. So leave it to the folks at Disney, the Everest of High Concept, to produce a movie based on this line: “Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as twin twins.” All twists and splits of the story proceed from this inspiration; the concept propels the plot. After a merging of those stars and that theme, everything else is just homework.

Here’s how it goes. Two sets of twins — rich girls Rose and Sadie Shelton and poor girls Rose and Sadie Ratliff — are born in the same hospital, then mixed in their cradles. One pair of mismatched twins is raised in Manhattan, where they eventually run the giant Moramax corporation. The other pair grows up in Jupiter Hollow, an Appalachian town whose furniture factory Moramax owns and plans to sell, the better to strip-mine the region. The two Roses (both played by Tomlin) are country girls at heart; they love down-home honesty, rubes named Roone and all you can eat. The two Sadies (Midler and Midler), true Manhattan ladies, swoon at the sight of stretch limos, Tiffany and anything in pants. The country Ratliffs come North to fight the city Sheltons, and all four stay at the Plaza Hotel. Doors slam and chaos reigns, beaux are vamped and revamped, ideals are compromised and identities scrambled in this conglomerate comedy of errors.

Confused? Screenwriters Pierson and Rubel hope you’ll be, at least at first. They want you to be seeing double before you’ve settled in your seat. Fanciers of ’30s screwball comedy may chafe at this film’s substitution of efficiency | for energy, of speed for style; they may yawn at an old mirror-image routine that Midler essays, which is lifted from Silent Comedian Max Linder and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. But Big Business was designed as a compact car, not a classic. Once Director Jim Abrahams (Airplane!) hot-wires the mechanism, the plot takes care of itself, and the movie pretty genially takes care of any audience looking for frenetic summer fun. It’s value for money to get two fish-out-of-water stories in one, especially with the planet’s two most gifted performing females in the main roles.

Tomlin is an adept dear, and has a fine time hexing Moramax’s corporate wimps with her voodoo snake whammy. Still, you may vainly search for signs of the quicksilver wit and emotional risk she radiates onstage. Someday Hollywood will harness her genius, in some movie with a different co-star. After all, who looks at anyone else when Bette Midler is around? It is a privilege merely to watch her walk her walks: the not-quite-ladylike mince, the executive sweep, the strumpet’s strut. She lopes easily from City Sadie, the bitch goddess who spits out orders to her lab scientists (“Get tougher rats!”), to Country Sadie, struggling with her press-on nails (“I guess I should’ve pressed harder”) and giddy with her first sip of high life in a Plaza bathroom (“Cute little soaps in the shape of swans! Could you die!”). Tomlin plays the Roses, but Midler is a fistful of Daisys: Miller, Buchanan and Mae. She is more than High Concept. As a movie star, even in this efficient little comedy, Bette is heaven in high heels.

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