Daytime TV dramas can be a fertile field for satire. Though falling far short of the peerless Tootsie, Soapdish has moments of inspired lunacy. Directed by Michael Hoffman (Promised Land) from a script by Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias) and Andrew Bergman (The Freshman), this unbridled farce boasts a spirited cast of crazies, led by Sally Field as Celeste Talbert, the aging star of The Sun Also Sets. Accepting her umpteenth award, Talbert thanks her co-workers, who mutter beneath their fixed smiles. “Bitch,” says Ariel Maloney (sexy Teri Hatcher), who plays Dr. Monica DeMonaco on the show. “Hag,” says the show’s producer, David Barnes (Robert Downey Jr.). “I hate her soooo much,” says bombshell Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), who plays Nurse Nan. Only the show’s head writer, Rose Schwartz (Whoopi Goldberg on wry), is a true friend.
The backstage back stabbing has an irresistible fizz. Moriarty is wickedly funny, as Montana plots against Celeste by seducing Barnes (“Get rid of her and Mr. Fuzzy is yours”). And Downey gives Barnes a wonderfully sleazy avidity. He brings back Celeste’s former lover, Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline in richly comic form), a ham actor reduced to “playing Willy Loman to old farts eating meatloaf” in dinner theaters since Celeste axed him from the show twenty years ago. Barnes even devises a plot in which Celeste murders a mute homeless girl. But the plan backfires when the viewers learn that the actress cast in the role is Celeste’s niece, Lori Craven (Elisabeth Shue), and Celeste becomes more popular.
It’s a kick to see Field sending up her sweetheart image. When a costumer puts her in an unflattering turban, she shrieks, “I’m not Gloria fucking Swanson.” But her performance, along with the film, descends into silliness. The satire loses its edge as the filmmakers wrongheadedly try to humanize this nest of vipers. Soapdish is more fun when it’s spitting venom than when it’s licking wounds.