In this era of high-tech surface dazzle and microwaved attention spans, it takes a certain chutzpah to make a lavishly old-fashioned cornball-Hollywood epic encompassing three wars and five decades. In the case of For the Boys, the audacity is compounded: Do audiences really want to watch a 148-minute ! historical musical about two people who don’t really like each other?

Eddie Sparks (James Caan) and Dixie Leonard (Bette Midler) first meet on a USO tour in England in 1942. Eddie, a comedian and song-and-dance man (he’s like a sexier George Burns), started out in vaudeville and has become a national institution, beloved for his one-liners and his lewd, crusty charm. Dixie is a peppy, ebullient songstress whose sharp-tongued wit can slice right through a ham like Eddie. The moment she gets up in front of the troops and starts lobbing double entendres his way, it’s clear that these two were meant to be a team.

Onstage, Eddie and Dixie are in perfect synch. They can’t help trying to one-up each other, and audiences know their spunky, combative edge is the real thing; it’s what makes their act click. Offstage, the testy aggression that sparks them as performers congeals into sour backbiting. Nevertheless, in their sentimental show-biz hearts Eddie and Dixie are soul mates. The movie, which takes them from World War II to Korea to Vietnam and finally to their big, gala reunion in the present day, is a scattershot pastiche: A Star Is Born meets Beaches meets The Sunshine Boys meets Platoon.

For the Boys has some lively musical numbers, and Caan and Midler go at their roles with energy and snap. If nothing else, the two are utterly plausible enacting 50 years of mutual grouchiness. Yet the characters don’t connect on enough levels to draw us in. Eddie is the sort of happily coarse backstage sultan who’s content to spend his life shacking up with chorus girls. Caan has never been a very ingratiating actor, but I somewhat enjoyed his cantankerousness, his refusal to soften the character. Midler’s role is more problematic. Beneath her surface irreverence, Dixie is just a nice girl — sweet, domestic, and responsible. She loses her husband during World War II and, as far as we can tell, doesn’t date another man for 40 years. Midler gets off a few sassy quips, especially when Dixie and Eddie are rehearsing a domestic sketch on their early-’50s TV variety show. In general, though, Dixie is so squeaky clean at heart that Midler can’t fully uncork her brash charisma. For most of the movie, she’s like a watered-down cross between the Divine Miss M and the long-suffering earth mothers she played in Beaches and Stella. Dixie isn’t a character, exactly-she’s a walking Bette’s-greatest-hits package.

For the Boys is big and lumbering, yet the script is just a skittery series of episodes; the movie hurtles through eras as if it had been shot out of a cannon. Director Mark Rydell, who steered Midler through her best performance (as the passionately self-destructive pop star in 1979’s The Rose), goes for melodrama and ”relevance” at the same time. He sets Eddie and Dixie’s relationship against a backdrop of shifting American attitudes toward war and patriotism. There’s also a preachy — and all too inevitable — detour into the McCarthy-era blacklist, with Eddie selling out his longtime head writer (George Segal). The more the two performers persevere into the new, postwar America, the less and less relevant their brand of wisecracking boosterism becomes.

The trouble is, audiences don’t go to a splashy romantic package like this for a history lesson (especially when it’s the sort of bogus, derived-from-old-movies history in which World War II soldiers are pictured as carefree, apple-cheeked Boy Scouts). They go to see a shameless, pull-out-the-stops soap opera. And nothing that happens between Eddie and Dixie hits that juicy pitch of emotional extravagance. For the Boys wants to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. In the end, though, the movie, with its schematic sentimentality and just-add-water period settings, is a great big empty shell- a reminder that, no, they really don’t make ’em like they used to. C+

For the Boys
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes