Outrageous Fortune

The screenwriter of Outrageous Fortune, first-timer Leslie Dixon, has marveled in print that her script was not watered down through the common Hollywood tradition of rewriting. Amazingly, her finished draft was shot “almost verbatim.”

There may be a lesson here for those legions of screenwriters who complain about how their work has been ruined by other writers or the director. If someone had had the good sense to insist on a major reworking of Dixon’s script, Outrageous Fortune might have been a genuinely memorable movie. As it is, it’s yet another of those films that begins with much promise, only to fly farther out into idiocy.

Dixon spins out some swift, daffy exposition in the early reels. The mainspring of the comedy is the familiar collision of two ill-matched women; one is an uptight would-be actress (Shelley Long), the other a blowsy Brooklyn babe (Bette Midler). The casting alone describes the dynamic of their relationship, since both actresses are working according to type: Long does the prissy, pretentious number she’s perfected on Cheers, and Midler does her usual brass band.

They’re both amusing, as expected, and Dixon’s plot pulls them together via an acting class taught by a great Russian drama teacher (Robert Prosky). It will turn out that they share something else: a lover (Peter Coyote), but he is promptly killed in an explosion, before Long’s eyes.

Or is he? Long and Midler bump into each other at the morgue, examining the corpse. So they discover the truth about Coyote’s infidelity; but they also, upon closer inspection, realize that the body on the slab is not his. (A crucial, ah, portion of his anatomy, having survived the explosion, does not jibe with their recollections of it.)

When they team up to track him down, it’s an excuse for some predictable, if effective, clashes of personality. Unfortunately, it’s also the point at which the film really leaves its hinges. Some foolishness about the KGB and the CIA is introduced, and the simple hunt for Coyote becomes an overblown farce about saving the western United States, or something.

It’s not funny, but what’s worse is that it’s so unnecessary – as though the domestic tribulations of this triangle alone couldn’t hafve sustained a satisfying comedy; the screwball classics of the ’30s and ’40s did all right, and there wasn’t even a CIA to kick around.

Even in the latter stages, some of Dixon’s dialogue has bite, and there’s an intermittently spacey cameo from George Carlin, also cast to type, as a woozy survivor of the ’60s adrift in a small New Mexico town. Director Arthur Hiller treats all of this with the same poker-faced invisibility he has maintained throughout his bland career (Love Story, The In-Laws).

Midler’s shtick is intact. Long ranges a bit, and proves herself to be an utterly uninhibited actress, physically adept and blessed with great timing. Too bad she’s spinning her wheels with flip material.

First published in The Herald, February 2, 1987

I do not know what else to say.

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