Films, TV, and Theatre

Big Business (1988)

Comedy of mistaken identities starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in dual roles as
two sets of mismatched twins.

Stars: Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann
Director: Jim Abrahams

TV Guide

Two of America's funniest women, Midler and Tomlin, are paired in this mistaken-identity farce (a loose reworking of START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME) directed by Abrahams, the man in the middle of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker triumvirate that created AIRPLANE!; RUTHLESS PEOPLE; and THE NAKED GUN. While traveling in West Virginia, a wealthy New York woman goes into labor and is rushed to the nearest hospital. Because the hospital caters only to employees of the Hollowmade Furniture factory, her millionaire husband buys the company on the spot, and she is admitted. She gives birth to twin daughters--as does a local woman in another room. A near-sighted nurse mixes up the babies, of course. Years later Midler and Tomlin are the two pairs of mismatched twins. Midler plays both Sadie Shelton, the tough-as-nails CEO of the Moramax Corporation, and Sadie Ratliff, a Hollowmade employee who dreams of a life of luxury far removed from her home in Jupiter Hollow. Tomlin portrays the wispy Rose Shelton, who worries more about saving whales than about Moramax's profit outlook, and Rose Ratliff, a headstrong Hollowmade foreman and union organizer who stomps off to New York City with her sister to fight Moramax's proposed sale of the furniture factory. Both sets of twins check into the Plaza Hotel, and confusion abounds as they are repeatedly mistaken for one another while never quite meeting. This comedy of errors has more than a few laughs; but although it will satisfy Midler fans, it is not likely to win her many new converts. Nor does the movie use Tomlin to her best advantage. The broad humor of BIG BUSINESS is well-suited to Midler's sassy, steamroller style, and she sashays through both of her roles with plenty of verve. In contrast, however, is Tomlin, whose more subtle approach is lost in this broad farce. Director Abrahams, working on his own for the first time, has some problems with pacing and with sustaining an essentially one-joke premise that never arrives at its big payoff. He often misses the mark with smaller targets too, but he does elicit some fine supporting performances from Ward, Gerroll, Placido, and Webb, who provide many of the best laughs.

Variety Staff

Big Business is a shrill, unattractive comedy which stars Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, who play two sets of twins mixed up at birth. They have distinctly different comic styles, with the former's loud brashness generally dominating the latter's sly skittishness.

A mishap at a rural hospital pairs off the daughters of a hick couple with the sprigs of a major industrialist and his society wife. Jump to New York today, where dynamic Moramax Corp board chairman Sadie Shelton (Midler) is forced to tolerate her scatterbrained, sentimental sister Rose (Tomlin) while trying to push through the sale of a subsidiary firm in their birthplace of Jupiter Hollow.

To try to thwart the sale at a stockholders' meeting, another Sadie and Rose, of the Ratcliff clan, leave Jupiter Hollow for the big city. As soon as they arrive at the airport, the complications begin.

Of the four performances by the two leads, the one easiest to enjoy is Midler's as venal corporate boss. Dressed to the nines and sporting a mincing but utterly determined walk, Midler tosses off her waspish one-liners with malevolent glee, stomping on everyone in her path.

There are moments of delight as well in her other characterization as a country bumpkin who has always yearned for the material pleasures of Babylon.

Tomlin has her moments, too, but her two sweetly flakey, nay-saying characters for a while seem so similar.

Roger Ebert

"Big Business" opens with a scene in which two sets of twins are mixed up, so that in later life each set will contain one Bette Midler and one Lily Tomlin. This ought to have inspired a funny movie, but instead what it inspires is an endless and dreary series of scenes in which the various twins just barely miss running into each other in the Plaza Hotel. You can picture the scenes. The elevator doors close on one Midler just as the other Midler comes running down the hallway.

This is not funny. It is never funny, in this movie or any other movie. People running into each other can be funny, but when they just miss, what are we supposed to do? Slap our knees and say, "Lord a-mighty, they dern near ran into each other and wouldn't that have been funny!" Early in the production of this movie, somebody should have made the following observation: Scenes of people barely missing one another in hotels are not amusing.

In its presentation of the two sets of non-twins, the movie backs genetics rather than environment as the prime formative factor in human development. Both Midlers are conniving and materialistic, and both Tomlins are flutter-brained and well-meaning. But the Midler/Tomlin team from down South in Jupiter Hollow is a little nicer. They work in the local factory, which has manufactured porch swings from time immemorial.

Meanwhile, the New York Midler wants to sell out the factory and the town to a shifty Italian investor who wants to strip-mine the whole county right off the map. The impending sale inspires the Jupiter Hollow women to travel up north to New York for the annual stockholder's meeting of the company controlled by the Manhattan women. Both sets of women check into the Plaza Hotel at the same time, inspiring numerous flat and tedious scenes that are structured as if they were intended to be slapstick.

The life all seems to have escaped from this movie. Midler and Tomlin can be funny actors, but here they both seem muted and toned down in all of the characters they play. The most promising character probably is Sadie Shelton, Midler's New York company executive, who has the potential to be a bitch on wheels but never realizes it. The Jupiter Hollow Midler seems unfocused, and both Tomlins seem to be the same rather vague woman who has trouble with her shoulderpads.

The fundamental problems of the movie all can be traced, I suspect, back to the screenplay. After the babies have been switched and the premise has been set up, far too much time is spent with the futile manipulation of the four characters in the hotel. One begins a breakfast and the other finishes it. One doesn't recognize the Italian but the other one does. In the least amusing of several would-be running gags, a bum outside the hotel does double-takes when he thinks he's seeing double. These scenes are givens - and should have been given away, to make room for laughs that could come from characters, dialogue and conflict.

In a movie of disappointments, the major disappointment is a shocker. What have we been waiting for through the whole movie? For the moment when the four women all meet in the same place at the same time, right? So what happens when they do? After the first shocked moment of mutual recognition - nothing happens! The movie cuts to the next scene. There is no scene in which the women reconstruct what must have happened, and deal with their new reality. No scene in which the two nice Tomlins gang up on the two bitchy Midlers. If there's anything worse than a long, slow, boring buildup to a payoff, it's the buildup without the payoff. This movie doesn't feel finished.

Rita Kempley, Washington Post Staff Writer

Snow White reportedly flew into a snit when she heard Bette Midler had been signed to a fourth Disney feature. "Fasten your seat belts, boys and girls," chirped the 50-year-old fairy tale princess. "It's going to be a frumpy night."

With her Rubenesque abundance, Midler does look Petunia Piggish as she prisses through this latest screwball farce, truly queen in the Magic Kingdom. Though paired with Lily Tomlin, Midler takes charge in "Big Business," waltzing off with this amiably sputtering tale of star-crossed twins while Tomlin is about as animated as Miss White during her 100-year rest period.

As twins go, these two are no Minneapolis-St. Paul. The understated Tomlin, overpowered by Midler's kitsch and swish, was better off opposite John Travolta. The actresses are, in fact, as mismatched as their fictional counterparts, Rose and Sadie Shelton and Rose and Sadie Ratliff, identical twins split up at birth by a myopic country nurse who earlier mistook the urine samples for apple juice.

The Sadies (Midler) are the spawn of wealthy Mrs. Shelton, a New Yorker who went into labor on the way through hicky Jupiter Hollow. "That was the ickiest, messiest, most primitive experience I've ever had," was her postpartum comment. The Roses (Tomlin) were born to a slow-normal, raw-boned local couple, who work for the Hollowmade Furniture Co., a subsidiary of the Shelton-owned Moramax conglomerate. Years later, Sadie Shelton, Moramax's lantern-jawed, polka-dotted-to-die-for, cutthroat CEO, prepares to sell Hollowmade to an Italian strip-mining operative. Her wan sister Rose, inclined to lace and cameos, bends to her sister's wishes, dreaming of country sunsets, porch swings and vegetable gardens.

When news of the imminent sale reaches Jupiter Hollow, Rose Ratliff, the factory's feisty foreman, rallies the workers. With proceeds from a quilt sale and country jamboree, Rose determines to speak her piece at the stockholders' meeting in New York. Her kittenish sister Sadie, who loves "Dynasty" and Dior, goes with her sister, not to stop Moramax, but to escape the hollow. Pursued by Roone (Fred Ward), the peewee golf pro who loves her, the dowdy, hardheaded Rose and her sister arrive at La Guardia, where they are mistaken for the Sheltons by a suave Italian mining magnate (Michele Placido).

You can, of course, guess what happens next, but you don't have to. This classic comedy of errors is over-structured by cousin-writers Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel and mechanically laid out by director Jim Abrahams. Though he's codirected such loony larks as "Airplane!" and "Ruthless People," this is Abrahams' first solo project. It's surprisingly cautious, a sex farce with twin beds.

Sky Movies

There's some brilliant trick camerawork in the later stages of this fairly funny farce as one mismatched set of Bette Midler-Lily Tomlin twins bumps into the other. The story goes like this: the girls are muddled at birth when the millionaire father of one twinset is forced to buy the town of Jupiter Hollow to get his wife into its hospital. Thirty years later, predatory businesswoman Bette 'A' and daffy-dilly sister Lily 'A' are set to close down the industry they've inherited in Jupiter Hollow, while the two Hollow residents, strong-willed Lily 'B' and starry-eyed sister Bette 'B', set out from the cornfields to stop them! The film doesn't waste much time at all and, being directed by Jim Abrahams of Airplane! fame, sets up some good gags on the side, including the tramp outside the Waldorf Hotel who keeps seeing double. It's Abrahams' deft touch that keeps the helter-skelter of changing partners - baffling husbands, boyfriends, lovers and colleagues alike - from becoming tiresome. And the trickwork when the foursome meets in the loo makes it worth a watch on its own.