Kino Lorber recently teamed up two late-'80s / early-'90s films for a Blu-ray release that seem to share little in common other than both being comedies that star Bette Midler. Movies linked by actors instead of directors don't always pair well together and this is an interesting combination.
Big Business is a 1988 teaming of Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a Jim Abrahams (Airplane) directed film. The "body change" and "split up twins" scenarios were a popular trope of films of this era. Most people go back to the Freaky Friday reference from the '70s but the idea of an actor playing different versions of themselves is not new. In fact, it's interesting to pull Lily Tomlin into this since she had done a similar turn in All of Me in 1984. In that film, Carl Reiner did an interesting job of letting both characters portray Tomlin being in Steve Martin's body. Whereas, Abrahams plays up both characters being twins and allowing Midler and Tomlin to be Country and City versions of themselves.
The basic plot is two sets of twins being switched at birth in a small town of Jupiter Hollow and one set being raised by a rich couple in New York City and the other set being raised in Jupiter Hollow. Each actress does a decent job of differentiating their Country and City characters. That's generally what I would expect from two very talented actresses. The problems arise more from the direction and writing than the acting.
The movie is set in motion when the Jupiter Hollow twins head to meet with the company run by the New York City twins. Of course, neither set knows that they are separated twins of the others. The rest of the movie is essentially just an "oops, they just missed running into each other" joke. That twist was funny with the first few mistaken identities. Even the first couple times that a Country Midler just barely misses running into City Midler. The problem is that this becomes the whole movie. It's one long tease.
The problem with the long tease is the payoff. Spoiler Alert - there isn't one. With a few minutes, the two sets of twins finally meet in a bathroom. There's no long scene of "Hey, what happened the last 40 or 50 years that led us here?". The plot hole is filled and the movie quickly moves on to its conclusion. That's it. Maybe we held our body changing / lost twins movies to a different standard in 1988. The acting here is fine. Tomlin is a superior comedic actress and that's no slight to Midler because she's talented but Lily left me with any of the humor that will remain after the film ended. In the end, it's a plot that just doesn't hold any interest thirty years later.
Scenes from a Mall is the other film of the double feature. It's a 1991 film starring Bette Midler and Woody Allen directed by Paul Mazursky who worked with Midler previously on Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I remember the promise of this film on paper in 1991. An almost play-like film with two top-shelf actors in Midler and Allen in a film directed by a very competent director in Mazursky who has an eye for detail in his other films like Enemies: A Love Story.
This turns out to be the worst type of film - one with great promise on paper that feels wasted on so many levels. Midler and Allen are an upper-class power couple on a shopping trip and the mall in Beverly Hills. One, what sounds more 1991 than a movie set in a shopping mall? Two, these characters build most of their backstory on what we know of the actors from previous films. That works for Midler because we've seen her as the upper-class bitch before but it's more difficult for Allen because we envision him as a New York intellectual more than the California-based husband.
The main letdown is in the writing from that initial set-up forward. The innocuous trip to the mall takes a dramatic turn for seemingly no reason. I like to know that we are watching a slice of a couple's life for a reason. But the motivation for Allen telling Midler that he's been having an affair feels very arbitrary. Since that revelation appears to come out of nowhere then everything that follows from it, including an annoying mime, feels just as unmotivated.
The rest of the "comedy" is a gamut of emotions. Midler is the engine that drives this film. Each scene after the revelation feels more like Midler was given an "emotion" on paper and told to go and act out. There's just not a laugh to be had in the last two-thirds of the film. I was reminded of how Neil Simon handled similar plot devices. In his plays, the couple has a backstory that would make the emotions hit home. The setting of the mall would play more into what is happening with the characters and how their relationship is unraveling. Think of his plays that are set in hotels and how the compartments of the public vs. private say so much about the relationships of the characters. I wish that more substance was here to grab hold of but it's just an empty vessel.
The two films here are linked only by Bette Midler. She's a talented actress and in neither film do I fault her acting. Big Business had the potential to be a pretty solid slapstick comedy. Scenes from a Mall promised to be a fun little film with Midler and Allen telling jokes and having relationship issues while shopping for the day at the mall. What we got was a disappointment in each case. Now, double feature them and it's even more obvious. This 1988 - 1991 time period in films is not one of the best in my opinion and I think this illustrates the wrong directions that so many films took.