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For the Boys Reviews

A blatantly contrived yarn about the trials and tribulations of two legendary USO entertainers, FOR THE BOYS was tailor-made for the myriad talents of the Divine One herself, Bette Midler. She's given multiple opportunities to emote, tell dirty jokes, emote, kick up her heels, emote and finally metamorphose into a full-scale pop culture tragedienne. While Midler's multitude of fans may wax enthusiastic over this spectacularly ambitious period saga, the average viewer will find FOR THE BOYS a very long sit. As the film opens, smooth young TV executive Jeff Brooks (Arye Gross) is sent to escort veteran entertainer Dixie Leonard (Midler) to a lavish televised awards presentation honoring Leonard and her partner of nearly 50 years, the legendary Eddie Sparks (James Caan). Brooks is informed by Dixie, now a feisty octogenarian, that she has no intention of appearing on the same stage as Eddie, despite the honor. Quickly assessing the situation, Brooks earns Dixie's confidence by cannily questioning her about her turbulent life and career. The year is 1942 and, thanks to the help and clout of her show-biz agent uncle, Art Silver (George Segal), eager entertainer Dixie Leonard gets her first big break when she's offered a spot in England entertaining the GIs for the USO. The star with whom she is to work is none other than show biz great Eddie Sparks, renowned career-maker ... and skirt chaser. Once onstage, Dixie is an instant success, thanks to her vibrant personality, swinging voice and double entendres, all to the chagrin of Eddie. Offstage, Eddie informs Dixie that she won't work for him again. Though all tough-as-nails brass on the outside, inside Dixie is all heart and quite vulnerable, and she's devastated by Eddie's news. However, the starmakers behind the scenes come to her rescue and, realizing the incredible impact Dixie has had on the boys, convince Eddie to team up with her. Dixie's private life, meanwhile, is primarily focused on raising her small son and awaiting the safe return of her husband, a GI fighting in North Africa. Soon after a brief visit with her husband--arranged by Eddie--Dixie is widowed and never marries again. Instead, she devotes her life to her son and show business. While the Sparks-Leonard pairing flourishes onstage, seemingly in perfect harmony, offstage it is a battle royale. Still, their professional union continues through World War II, a successful TV series, and the Korean conflict. The love-hate relationship between Dixie and Eddie boils over into genuine bitterness on Dixie's part when Eddie betrays Uncle Art, now his top comedy writer. It's the McCarthy era and Art Silver has been blacklisted. Fearing reprisals, Eddie fires Art and for this Dixie never forgives him. Despite this, Dixie, now a successful nightclub owner, allows herself to be coaxed by Eddie into coming out of retirement to appear with him once again entertaining the troops, this time in Vietnam. The main attraction for Dixie is the fact that a trip to Vietnam will reunite her with her estranged son Danny (Christopher Rydell), a GI. During their performance, the Viet Cong attack and Danny is fatally wounded, dying in his mother's arms. Traumatized by the shock and horror of this bloody incident, Dixie permanently retires from the stage, vowing never to work with, or contact, Eddie again. While it is unquestionably loud, brassy, glittering and vulgar, FOR THE BOYS fails to be as potent, meaningful or as focused as it should have been and the overall effect is a tedious, rambling story that finally grinds to a halt during the final Eddie Sparks-Dixie Leonard reunion sequence. Apparently afraid to buck the current thought that musicals don't make it at the box office, director Mark Rydell chose instead to keep the action moving at all times. This means that most numbers are seen only in bits and snatches while some other--much less interesting--bits of manipulative backstage business are taking place, such as which TV monitor to pick Dixie and Eddie up on, etc. What we have now is a show biz chronicle that often lacks the coherence it should have at all times. True, the concept of two superstar entertainers who are a smash as a team but whose private lives are all messed up, is very clear. However, the film's preoccupation with Eddie's supreme selfishness and Dixie's bombastic brassiness tends to get in the way of story progression to the point where there is blessed little time to appreciate the setting of any given episode--the exceptions being the early sequences entertaining the troops in 1942 and the horror of Vietnam. Then there's the problem of Caan, a fine actor horribly miscast as Eddie. Sparks is described as a superstar song-and-dance-man and comedian, a seeming combination of Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire, but we're never given a full-fledged demonstration of his amazing talents. Caan, although splendid in his offstage moments, lacks the charisma to effectively convey Eddie's tremendous appeal. Finally, and this is probably the film's worst moment and greatest single flaw, there is the blatant contrivance of having Dixie perform on the very day and at the very spot where her son is mortally wounded in Vietnam. Christopher Rydell's death scene in Midler's arms--anguish registering all over her face--just doesn't work because it makes the viewer too acutely aware that he is being manipulated by yet another excessively executed plot point. FOR THE BOYS truly shines when Bette Midler is permitted to perform uninterrupted, unfortunately all too rare a circumstance. The few musical numbers Midler, in a role patterned after the life and career of Martha Raye, is allowed to do justice to include a previously unheard Hoagy Carmichael-Paul Francis Webster song, "Billy-A-Dick," along with the haunting Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen standard, "Come Rain or Come Shine," plus an all-to-brief performance of the energetic "Stuff Like That There" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and, finally, the Lennon/McCartney classic, "In My Life." Midler has definitely been short-changed here. She is a unique and special performer whose way with a song is dynamite and, perhaps, if this film had much more footage devoted to what Midler does best--singing upbeat, snappy tunes and emotion-charged torch songs--audiences would have taken to FOR THE BOYS much more than they did. (Some violence, profanity, adult situations.)