BetteBack Friday, April 4, 1997: Manic Midler Makes `Old Feeling’ Sing

San Fran Chronicle
Friday, April 4, 1997


In “That Old Feeling,” Bette Midler ostensibly plays a movie star named Lilly. But seeing her sashay around in skin-tight dresses, her hair preternaturally blond, another star comes to mind: Mae West .

Midler puts a swagger into lines that could have come out of West’s mouth. “Don’t you know your 20s are for having sex with all the wrong people?” Lilly admonishes her straitlaced daughter, Molly (Paula Marshall), who has just announced her engagement.

Lilly locks her daughter in a hotel room with a sexy paparazzo, Joey ( Joey Nucci ), to prevent them from interfering with Lilly’s own romance. Returning the next morning, she observes Molly asleep in one bed and Joey in another. “Well,” Lilly intones, hands on hips Mae West- style, “I see nobody got lucky last night.”


Midler’s performance may sound over the top, but it blends right into this manic comedy, which occasionally shows the strain of trying too hard to be funny. Director Carl Reiner has emulated the pacing of ’30s screwball comedies, but the script byLeslie Dixon lacks the easy charm that kept those films clipping along.

Still, Dixon has come up with some genuinely screwy situations. Lilly’s steamy new romance turns out to be with her ex-husband, Dan (Dennis Farina), whom she is supposed to hate. Even more unlikely, Joey, who has harassed her with his camera for years, becomes her savior. It’s hard not to like a film that has the guts to make a hero out of someone as maligned as a paparazzo.


Farina, known for playing Mafia goons, is unexpectedly affecting; he’s like a sweet Burt Reynolds. In their early scenes, Farina and Midler hurl insults at each other with perfect comic timing. Midler even gets to sing “Somewhere Along the Way,” accompanying a piano player at a bar Dan and Lilly have wandered into. But the running joke about how these two have the hots for each other quickly goes stale. How many times can we see them with contented postcoital grins?

The movie does better at sustaining interest in what will become of daughter Molly. Will she stay with her stuffy new husband, Keith (Jamie Denton), or will she cut loose as Lilly wants her to?

In this battle for Molly’s soul, the filmmakers make no attempt to conceal their bias. One camp fighting for her consists of fun-loving liberals — her parents and Joey, a liberal by dint of being working-class — who are in the arts or, in Joey’s case, on the periphery. The other faction is made up of pompous Republicans — Keith, who is running for office on a family values platform, and his self-righteous father, a U.S. senator. Think of Edward Arnold in ’30s comedies to get an image of the senator.

All the harping about plastic surgery and who has had what work done sounds like it’s been lifted from “The First Wives Club.” More curious is the origin of the scene where Molly accidentally swallows her engagement ring, which at great effort has been buried in her dessert. Anyone who saw Woody Allen‘s “Everyone Says I Love You” will remember an almost identical scene.

Maybe this overlap isn’t so mysterious: Reiner and Allen both wrote for Sid Caesar‘s “Your Show of Shows” in the ’50s. Anyone remember a skit about swallowing an engagement ring?

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