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MOVIE REVIEW : Midler, Tomlin Do a Twin Turn in 'Big Business'

June 10, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Big Business" (citywide) is a bright whirligig of a movie, but reading any description of its plot set-up--twins upon twins, both sets with the same two names--is enough to put you in your hammock with a sick headache. Don't fret; as you watch its buoyant hilarity, the intricacies flow smoothly as honey off a spoon.

Like a sensational party the night before, "Big Business" may not bear the closest scrutiny in the cold light of day, but it gives an irresistible glow at the time. And when it gets on a roll, it's a movie with more wit to its lines and a more pungent array of them than much of the mishmash that has passed as Bette Midler's Greatest Movie Hits.

"Big Business" uses the switched-baby plot, doubled. (Or "The Comedy of Errors" once.) Years ago, two mothers at the Jupiter Hollow Hospital delivered twin girls, one mother from the rich eastern Shelton family, the other from the poor, Jupiter Hollow Ratliffs. A myopic and tottering nurse mismatches the identical pairs, creating two sets of fraternal twins: a rich Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin Shelton and a poor Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin Ratliff.

(Would it complicate things to say that the Midlers are both named Sadie and the Tomlins are both named Rose? I thought so.)

Some friendly number of years later, Les Girls, now grown up, are unconsciously feeling the separation-stress. All, perhaps, but Midler-Shelton (the rich.) At the top of the corporate heap, CEO of her now-dead daddy's company, Moramax, she is having the time of her life terrorizing subordinates and gobbling up the competition. Impervious to sentiment, next on her agenda is selling Jupiter Hollow's sole industry--its Hollowmade plant--down the river to an Italian firm that plans to abandon it.

Midler-Shelton certainly doesn't get much opposition from her twin. Tomlin-Shelton is not a happy executive nor a happy New Yorker. Sweet, bright but hopeless in a board meeting, her shoulder pads are forever nestling somewhere near her elbows while her mind is fixed on home, hearth and nesting. In another Disney movie, you might call her twitter-pated.

Similar feelings of displacement are affecting the poor Ratliff set of twins. Even when milking a cow or yodeling, Midler-Ratliff is not a country girl. Swathed in gingham, she yearns for Armani and gridlock. And Tomlin-Ratliff is a fiery activist, bristling with protest buttons, whose current cause is Saving Jupiter Hollow from the Moramax monsters. It will require a trip to New York, where a mix-up lands both sets of twins in twin suites at the Plaza Hotel, to start every spark plug of this mistaken-identity farce firing.

It's the Manhattan section that sets the tone for the rest of the picture; debuting screenwriters Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel and director Jim Abrahams (one-third of the "Airplane!" directing trio) keep it moving like a conveyor belt in a toy factory, a fresh surprise every second. The brisk verbal wit, combined with quiet, droll sight gags, sets the film foursquarely in our affection at this point, and it holds even through a sag late in the second act when things become less crisp and defined than perhaps they should be.

Of the four twins, the rich, venomous Midler is the most powerful character, a fact that has certainly not eluded Midler herself. With an explosive entrance, her shiny black hat at a lethal angle, she minces into Moramax firing directives--and employees--left and right. Laser clear thinking is her byword; her twin's complete untogetherness appalls her: "Splash some water on your face and maintain ," she hisses at a starch-less Tomlin before they face a board meeting.

The actresses are in splendid form; at the heart of the film's fascination is the care they've lavished on individual character brush strokes. If the edge goes to Midler it's because her city persona is a towering inferno all by itself, and it burns down the competition.

Someone should puzzle out sometime why the genius that illuminates Tomlin's one-woman shows has never quite found itself on screen. Only in a non-comedic role, in "Nashville" for Robert Altman, has she had a chance to hint at power as well as comedy. Her nicest moments here are as the assertive country Ratliff, making the Plaza her campaign headquarters, sneakily stamping the hotel's cocktail napkins with anti-Moramax slogans.

(Pierson and Rubel have split the qualities of dominance and reticence evenly in their twins, but they've made the Midlers pure city Sadies and the Tomlins pure country Roses. The writers have every reason to have a kindred feeling for twins; they are first cousins and Rubel's mother--Pierson's aunt--is one of a set of fraternal twins, named Sadie and Rose.)

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