Sunday, May 3, 2015

I Sold My Soul to the U.S.O.

Film: For the Boys
Format: Streaming video from Netflix on The Nook.

For the Boys has been sitting in my streaming queue on NetFlix for a couple of years. I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but there’s a large “eating my vegetables” component of this project and I try to knock out a couple of films I’m not particularly looking forward to every month…or week. Lots of those films end up being as difficult as I expect them to be and now and then I get a pleasant surprise of something that’s really worth seeing. For the Boys falls in the second category, at least for the majority of its running time.

This is a “takes place in flashback” movie, so we start in the film’s present. Jeff Brooks (Arye Gross) arrives at the apartment of Dixie Leonard (Bette Midler) to take her to the production of a live television broadcast. She and her former stage partner Eddie Sparks (James Caan) are being awarded with a presidential medal for their services in keeping up the morale of American troops fighting in wars overseas. But Dixie doesn’t want to go and doesn’t want to share the stage with Eddie Sparks again. When asked why, she starts to relate the story of her life and we go “doodley-doodley-doop” into the past for most of the rest of the running time.

Essentially, during World War II, Dixie is making a living as a singer but is blindsided when a telegram arrives from her uncle Art (George Segal). Art is one of the writers for Eddie Sparks, a famous and talented comedian/song and dance man working in England to keep up the morale of the troops. Art has arranged for Dixie to join the tour, which she does.

Thus starts the difficult relationship between Dixie and Eddie. At their first show, Dixie is quick-witted, often getting the better of Eddie in verbal jabs. She’s also, for the time, filthy and bawdy, which Eddie uses as an excuse to get her removed from the show. However, cooler heads prevail—primarily Uncle Art and manager Sam Schiff (Norman Fell)—and Dixie and Eddie become a variety act comedy duo that rivals, well, any other historical comedy/variety duo in history. The death of Dixie’s husband during the war doesn’t stop her career for long, and soon she and Eddie have a television show and tremendous success.

But it’s not all fun and games. Eddie, married to an alcoholic wife and with three daughters, takes an interest in Dixie’s son and becomes something of a surrogate to him. In danger of losing their television sponsorship because of Dixie’s inability to stick to a censor-approved script, the two reprise their performing-for-the-troops role and head off to Korea. This is during the McCarthy era, though, and Art ends up being fired for Communist leanings, which quickly puts a stop to the show and to Eddie and Dixie’s partnership.

They reunite again for Vietnam with the goal of seeing Dixie’s son Danny (Christopher Rydell) on the battlefield, a show that ends disastrously. And then we’re back in the present and we get a final meeting between the pair before the credits role.

There’s a lot of good here. I was completely engaged in this up to and through the section on the Korean War and Art’s firing. The final act of the film gets too predictable and the ends gets very sappy and maudlin, but it’s almost as if the film has gained enough good will through the first two acts that it carries over into the much weaker third act. Frequently, when a film punts the third act, I check out completely, but here I stayed with it until the end. It’s a shame that it does turn so emotionally drippy, because a lot of the first parts are really fun.

Bette Midler, who was nominated for this role, is a big part of the reason why. First of all, like her style or not, the woman can sing and she can perform. I can’t call myself a Bette Midler fan—I wouldn’t go see her in concert—but there’s no denying the woman’s talent. Just as important, she’s got great comic timing and she’s not afraid to make work a little blue. She’s funny, and while I know this is scripted, there’s a lot of effort here to make it look like she’s coming up with her own lines off the cuff, something I get the impression she could do very well and very easily in real life.

James Caan is a bit of a surprise. He’s not much of a singer or a dancer, but he holds his own. I tend to like James Caan and so I may be cutting him more slack than I should, but it was interesting to see him in this role.

I’m surprised at how much I liked so much of this. The third act really is the biggest problem here. Once we start heading to Vietnam, the rest of the film comes straight out of the “emotional moment time” playbook and doesn’t really let up on that until the final credits roll. It’s a shame, too, because this could’ve been a really exceptional film in a lot of ways. It’s close. It’s far more engaging than it should have been. It just punts the final half hour, and that’s a damn shame.

Why to watch For the Boys: Say what you want about her, Bette Midler has some serious pipes and great comic timing.
Why not to watch: The last third.


  1. I thought this was just okay. I felt Caan was miscast and he looked uncomfortable to me in the movie. I agree Midler has a heck of a voice.

    1. I can see that. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and that may be clouding my view of him.

      Midler, though, is worth the price of admission here. She may be all that is, but she's pretty great.