Before watching the movie:
There is so much star power in this movie I hadn’t heard of. I know Robert Downey Jr. was popular when he was young before he had to take a break to get clean and rebuild his reputation, but I think he’s still a bigger hit now than he ever was before. I always enjoy Kevin Kline, but while he’s gotten a lot of great comedy leads and supporting roles, I don’t think he ever got the comedy superstar status he may deserve. And of course, the movie is led by Sally Field and has Whoopi Goldberg in a role that might have 30 seconds of screen time for all I can tell with how prominent her name is versus how big she was in the 90s.
It occurs to me that I really enjoy spoofs of soap operas, though I don’t really seek them out. I saw several episodes of Soap some years ago but never continued after we finished the first disc or two, maybe because it was too much actual soapiness vs. mocking soapiness. Or perhaps I like the spoofs in concentrated bursts. Even Saturday Night Live’s “The Californians” was funny the first time. But what really draws me to this is that the story is about the drama going on off-camera, which makes me expect something like if Noises Off collided with Days of Our Lives.
After watching the movie:
Celeste Talbert is the biggest star of the daytime drama The Sun Also Sets, but her costar Montana Moorehead is manipulating the producer into trying to get her written out and put Montana’s character at the center. But everything they try only turns into bigger publicity for Celeste. The homeless character extra they want Celeste’s character to kill in self defense and get arrested for turns out to be played by Celeste’s niece Lori, and instead becomes a popular new character. So they bring back Jeffrey, Celeste’s ex-boyfriend from the 70s who got written out when Celeste broke up with him and got him fired, to try to force her into quitting. But the sparks that fly ignite a huge media wildfire only increasing Celeste’s bankability, though she may have a breakdown because of it.
Obviously, the interpersonal drama off-set rivaling what’s in their scripts is the joke, but aside from some major reveals played for laughs, they play it as realistically as can be funny, which just makes the twists even more entertainingly absurd. Interestingly, even though she’s the main character, Celeste never finds out that every catastrophe that happens to her in the course of the plot (except for her boyfriend moving out as an inciting action) is directly caused by Montana’s scheming, which would have triggered soapy conflict itself. Indeed, even though she’s the viewpoint character, as can be noted from the summary above, Celeste herself doesn’t affect the plot so much as react to it, almost all the way through.
If Kevin Kline and Steve Martin were to appear together in a movie, the smug charisma may be overwhelming. They have a very similar style, though I think Kline is the stronger physical comedian, and he gets to do a little of it here. But mostly he just charms and smarms, and it’s as delightful as ever. Elizabeth Shue is one of the most important characters in the story, and has had a fair number of major roles, but doesn’t get star billing. It’s clearly due to the crowded cast list, but it’s unfortunate she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for carrying a large share of the heart of the film. Whoopi Goldberg is in a supporting role and doesn’t actively seem too big for it, aside from the “that’s Whoopi Goldberg!” factor. Kathy Najimy has a small but fun part that felt just right too.
As usual, the realism in how the show is taped suffers. There are some excuses occasionally for why ruined takes get used, but they go wildly off-book or give bad deliveries several times and it goes to air anyway. It somewhat reminds me of how Singing In The Rain has scenes where characters filming silent scenes have an argument while acting out a love scene or the like, but without the level of logic/comic irony. It makes for entertaining storytelling though, so I try to overlook it.
This is a fun, at times hilarious story of tangled lives that touches on some valuable themes like aging in show business and working through strained personal connections, using them for comedy, but addressing them nonetheless. Noises Off on a soap stage is almost exactly what this is, and it’s a blast.