Starring: Bette Midler, James Caan, Ayre Goss
Rated R for Language
Normally, it's a bad thing for a movie to offer nothing we haven't seen before. But "For the Boys" is all about bittersweet nostalgia, so in that sense, that sameness is to be desired. It's cliché and manipulative, but of course it is. Movies like "For the Boys" are. In fact, that's why we go see them.
Famous entertainer Dixie Leonard (Midler) is being awarded for her successful career with showman/comedian Eddie Sparks (Caan). For forty years, they've performed together and entertained the nation. And during war time, they've gone to the battlefields to put on a show for the troops. A young assistant, Jeff Brooks (Goss), is sent to fetch Dixie and bring her to the stage where she will receive her reward. However, she refuses to go because there's been bad blood between her and Eddie for the past two decades. As Jeff tries to convince her to go (if only to save his job), she tells him the story of Dixie Leonard and Eddie Sparks.
"For the Boys" is one of those few movies where knowing the formula enhances the film's effect. It never pretends to be anything other than what it is, a rose-colored look at the highs and lows of a showbiz career. We know the big moments and when they come; it's just a matter of watching how Dixie and Eddie's love-hate relationship plays out. In some ways, "For the Boys" resembles "The Notebook," both in tone and how its predictability deepens the film's pleasures. This is as far away from "Sunset Blvd." as one can get.
The performances are effective, but no more. Bette Midler is known for her acting and singing, but while she can carry a tune with the best of them and can fire off a one-liner with ease, her dramatic range is limited. In moments of heavy drama, she goes over-the-top, which causes a few scenes to strike the wrong note. James Caan is more controlled, but at times too low-key. While he has chemistry with Midler (which is essential for this sort of movie), he can't match her for screen presence, and that creates a charisma mismatch. And Ayre Goss, a character actor who is probably most famous for is portrayal of the cuckolded husband in the opening scene of "Minority Report," is wonderful in the limited role of Jeff. He's a stand-in for the audience, and nothing more.
By its nature, a movie like "For the Boys" must go full blast on the melodrama and the manipulation. There's no place for subtlety here. Director Bob Rydell certainly doesn't underplay any of the material, but I would argue that he doesn't go far enough. A movie like this demands manipulation on par with "Titanic" or "Gone with the Wind." Rydell appears to be afraid to pull out all the stops, which keeps the film from being the grand "smiles and tears" movie that it could be.
Part of the reason is that it appears to be underfunded. Either that or Rydell lacks the grand vision to pull something like this off. The film constantly feels too small, too low budget. Imagine if James Cameron made "Titanic" for half the budget he was given, and you'll understand how constrained it feels. The dialogue is occasionally pedestrian when ripe clichés are to be encouraged, and the crucial dynamic between Dixie, Eddie, and Dixie's son Danny feels incomplete. And two characters, one of whom is pretty important, disappear without a trace. The story occasionally gets repetitive as well. Special mention has to go to the make-up jobs that add on the years to Midler and Caan. Putting it bluntly, it's awful. The make-up is the most unconvincing I have ever seen in a film.
Do I still recommend the film? Without a moment's hesitation. While there are some problematic scenes, the vast majority of them work. There are moments of real power and humor to be found here. Just don't expect anything surprising. It's not that kind of movie.