Movie of the Month: Big Business (1988)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BoomerBrandon, and Erin watch Big Business (1988).

Britnee: Many years ago, there was a local video rental shop in my hometown called Slick Sam’s (sounds more like a dirty sex shop), and that’s where I first came across one of my all-time favorite movies, Jim Abrahams’ 1988 comedy, Big Business. I can still see that sun-damaged, styrofoam-stuffed VHS cover sitting on the shelf just waiting for me to grab it. Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out that no one in the Swampflix crew had seen Big Business before, so I was able to make it my Movie of the Month selection for February. There’s not much love out there for this comic masterpiece, and it really does deserve some recognition.

In a small town called Jupiter Hollow, two women give birth to two sets of identical twin girls at the same time at a local hospital. One woman, Binky Shelton (Deborah Rush), is a big city snob that just so happened to go into labor while passing through Jupiter Hollow with her husband, but the other woman, Iona Ratliff (Patricia Gaul), is a local. The Sheltons and the Ratliffs coincidentally both name their twin daughters Rose and Sadie, and a kooky old nurse mixes up the sets of identical twins. About 40 years later, Sadie and Rose Shelton (Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin) are rich business women living in NYC while Sadie and Rose Ratliff (Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin) are country bumpkins living in Jupiter Hollow. Eventually, the two sets of twins end up in NYC at the same time, and all sorts of wacky things happen.

The performances by Midler and Tomlin are insanely impressive in this film. Midler plays a bitchy NYC snob (Sadie Shelton) and a kind small-town girl looking for adventure (Sadie Ratliff), and Tomlin plays a sweet, softspoken city girl (Rose Shelton) and a rough n’ tough country gal (Rose Ratliff). Portraying such different characters must’ve been such a difficult task for these comedy queens, but they both deliver.

Brandon, were you impressed by the versatile performances from Midler and Tomlin? Or were they just mediocre?

Brandon: I mean, Midler & Tomlin are both phenomenal personalities in general, so it’d be a total lie to say that anything they do or say is mediocre. However, it’s pretty clear that they both had a part they had more fun playing. It’s difficult to say which performance stands out most here between the two actresses, not because there isn’t a clear winner, but because the movie splits their performances into four quadrants: Rich Sadie & Poor Sadie (Midler) and Rich Rose & Poor Rose (Tomlin). There’s a definite, old fashioned nature>nurture mentality at work in Big Business, though, so the individual sisters who lucked into being raised in their “rightful” class environments are the more fun characters to watch, because their confidence is infectious. Poor Rose is certainly amusing in her bossy-but-small-minded local yokel skepticism. It’s Rich Sadie, however, who steals the show for me. As the Reaganomics-personified antagonist of the film, she’s allowed to be the most devious and, because Bette Midler is such a fabulous comedic performer, she strikes just the right tone of evil bitch that this film needed. Midler’s performance as Rich Sadie is just short of being a world-class drag routine. The way she saunters & pouts, insulting people’s outfits by saying “You look like a blood clot” while rocking the world’s largest shoulder pads is just begging for a drag-themed floor show revival. Poor Sadie has a couple of funny moments, mostly in a scene where she milks a cow to the beat of a country song & in her unholy fusion of Carribean-themed yodeling, but it feels like not nearly as much effort went into her character as the over-the-top vamping of her wealthy counterpart. The same could be said of Rich Rose. Tomlin & Midler are both fantastic in this film, but as far as versatility goes, it’s easy to see which characters got more attention.

Besides the easy likability of Midler & Tomlin in this film, something that really stood out to me is how old-fashioned everything feels. The swapped-twins plot of Big Business feels like it’s straight out of an Old Hollywood comedy, the kind that Fred & Ginger might’ve starred in if it had been released 50 years earlier. The nature-over-nurture value system of the movie is very much an antiquated line of thinking and (although there’s some confusion about who winds up with whom at the end) the film’s intense concern with finding each sister a potential mate is very much in line with the structure of a traditional comedy. Instead of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Big Business is more like A Million Beaus for Four Sisters. As the two sets of mismatched twins find themselves nearly-but-never-quite bumping into each other while all staying at the same hotel, I felt like I was watching a Marx Brothers movie. Hammering the point home, Midler even recreates the infamous Marx Brothers mirror gag from Duck Soup in the scene where her two characters finally meet for the first time. Fred Ward’s oblivious-to-homosexuality line reading of “You guys are alright” reads a lot like the classic “Nobody’s perfect!” zinger in Some Like It Hot. There’s even a gag where a homeless drunk rubs his eyes in disbelief when he sees both sets of twins walk by, immediately tossing away the bottle he’s clutching. I’m not sure that cinematic gags get much older than that.

What do you think of this film’s classic Hollywood callbacks, Boomer? Were they an intentional homage to the Old Hollywood era or just a strange coincidence for a comedy that happened to be old-fashioned by nature?

Boomer: I’m not much of a fan of comedies of error in which the humor relies too heavily on farcical near-misses, and there was a point in this movie where I lost heart as I realized that the film was saving the inevitable serendipitous union of the City and Country Mice for the end of the film. Once I had this epiphany and stopped waiting for the film to get to that point, I found myself enjoying the movie more straightforwardly, and was pleased that the mistaken-identity elements weren’t played for cringe-comedy as much as I had expected. As has been noted, this is a classic Hollywood farce, which really serves to demonstrate to what extent Old Hollywood was still working from a centuries-old storytelling paradigm; this isn’t really an Old Hollywood Farce so much as it is a Old Globe Farce, based on William Shakespeare’s genre-defining Comedy of Errors. In essence, Big Business is a throwback to a time when films were based almost entirely on dramas that were ancient even then, making the film old-fashioned by default, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. My major problem with the film comes from the way that its antiquated nature shows through in the film’s moral.

When viewing the four main characters, only Poor Rose and Rich Sadie seem truly suited for their positions in life, with Rich Rose and Poor Sadie being reasonably well-adjusted but largely unfulfilled. Ignoring the two women who are in their “rightful” lives, Poor Sadie’s desire for a more exciting life than pig wrasslin’ and yodeling can provide evokes more empathy for her than the audience can really muster for Rich Rose, who certainly has the financial means to forsake her supposedly incomplete life for the purported pleasures of rural domesticity. As such, Rich Rose is the character who gets the least characterization, really only developing once Roone shows up in the third act. This would be a fine exploration of the nature/nurture dichotomy, were it not for the fact that, ultimately, Poor Sadie comes to the decision that not only is the way of life in Jupiter Hollow worth preserving, it’s worth praising as well; she forsakes her biological sister’s urban and urbane world to return to performing percussive cow milking alongside toothless men whose musical expertise is limited to playing moonshine jugs, and we, as an audience, are supposed to feel gratified by this conclusion. Rural living is the right fit for everyone, except the shrewish antagonist.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I got plenty of laughs out of Tomlin and Midler’s performances here, and even the potentially painful farce worked for me. I was just hoping for one more twist (for instance, that the Sadies were actually the children of the Ratliffs and that the Roses were the Sheltons’ daughters) that would make the film less overt in its praise for downhome simplicity over metropolitan cynicism. To a man, all of the New York-based characters that are not Rich Rose are foppish, conceited, untrustworthy, manipulative, and greedy, with the implication being that Rose feels unfulfilled because she is genetically predisposed toward “goodness,” being the child of salt-of-the-earth outlanders. But the “goodness” of rural living is enough to almost completely deprogram Poor Sadie, who is tempted by the carnal delights that ensnare and comprise Rich Sadie’s identity and existence but is able to reject them. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

Erin, am I reading too much into this, or allowing my perception of the film to color my enjoyment of it too much? Is there something that mitigates this seeming moral that I may have overlooked? And what do you think about the Old Hollywood elements–do they work?

Erin: Boomer, I feel a little differently about the portrayal of country vs. city life, and I think that I came to slightly different conclusions about Big Business‘s moral assessment of both. I’d have to say that in true farcical fashion, both city life and country life are portrayed with an eye to their preposterous sides – yodeling and “making love in the back of a recreational vehicle” versus designer women in designer sneakers and the pompousness of grapefruits under silver lids.

Where I feel differently is that the on-screen portrayal of urban life seems to be much more positive than the portrayal of rural life. The Welcome to New York Montage, while funny, adheres pretty closely to the cinematic trope of New York as a vibrant, wonderful city (thought this might be more related to the visual presentation of Poor Sadie’s desires). Big Business‘s New York seems to be entirely made of the Plaza hotel and satin, even if its denizens are amoral and greedy. Rural life has gingham, and large, poor families.

If the moral of the story really is that rural life is better, I think it balances strangely against the onscreen portrayals of the rural and urban worlds. In a way, I think that starts to answer the second part of your question about the Old Hollywood elements (or the Old Globe elements, Big Business is truly a Shakespearean farce). I agree that that the movie reads as an old-fashioned screwball comedy and is pretty simple in terms of plot. On the other hand, I think that Big Business reads extremely well as an 80s movie. It’s got Bette Midler as a Power Lead (in TWO roles!), Big Business as the Big Bad, and steel drums lining the streets of New York.

What do you think, Britnee? To continue Boomer’s line of question, does Big Business manage to read well as an 80s movie? Does the old fashioned plot work well amongst the shoulder pads and polka dots of the 1980s?

Britnee: I’ve always viewed Big Business as a prime example of an 80s comedy. It’s packed with cheesy humor, wacky facial expressions, pumps and power suits, and of course, Bette Midler in her prime. It’s an 80s explosion! It wasn’t until this discussion that I realized that there are quite a few Old Hollywood elements present in this film. Now that I’m looking at the film through a much different lens, the movie is more interesting and much smarter than I initially thought. Creating a film that contains classical comic film features for an 80s audience mustn’t have been an easy task, but it’s a match made in heaven.

I know that this is completely off track, but I think that the film’s music deserves a bit of discussion. There are only two major lyrical songs in the film: Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and George Benson’s “On Broadway.” Both songs work well in the film (they’re so New York!), but as for the film’s instrumental tracks, they’re all kinds of ridiculous. It’s the type of music that belongs in a department store’s training video. Part of me feels as though the music was a bit too much, but another part of me thinks that the obnoxious tunes contributed to the film’s campiness.

Brandon, did you find the instrumental music in the film to be annoying or am I overthinking this?

Brandon: I don’t know if “annoying” is the word I would use. Maybe “cheesy”? Maybe “eccentric”? It’s undeniable that the background music of Big Business is always present, always noticeable, and perhaps even always awful, but I found it somehow added to the film’s charm. The soundtrack is another one of the areas where the film feels trapped between two times. Its big band music (which is mostly contained in the 1940s prologue) & countryside yodeling are decidedly old-fashioned, but the department store pop songs Britnee mentioned & the endless droning sax are so 80s it ain’t even funny (well, it’s a little funny). I don’t know if it was the exact DVD copy Britnee & I were watching or if the film was intentionally mixed this way, but the soft sax rock aspects were particularly noticeable (in that they were deafening) & particularly amusing. What really got me laughing, though, was the obnoxiously dramatic drum fills that crash the scene at the film’s climax. It’s as if Neil Peart had dropped in at the sound booth to add some last minute touches for the soundtrack.

Going back to that 1940s prologue for a second, the film starts in the old-timey countryside town of Jupiter Hollow, which prompted me to write “Stars Hollow” (the fictional town from Gilmore Girls, of course) in my notes. It was a surprise, then, that Gilmore Girls vet Edward Hermann (who, sadly, passed away a little over a year ago) appears in this film, delivering one of many great performances. It was also cool to see Seth Green run around as a raucous baby (almost literally) as well as the weird coincidence that both of the Roses’ beaus are future Tremors compatriots (Michael Gross & Fred Ward). All of this and Deborah Rush, aka Jerri Blank’s mom. The cast of supporting characters is surprisingly stacked, as long as you care about the niche pop culture properties they’re best known for.

Boomer, were there any supporting roles in particular that stood out to you as a favorite? Midler & Tomlin easily get the most to do, but I feel there was plenty enough opportunities for the other actors to shine.

Boomer: It’s funny, I was delighted to see Deborah Rush in this film, as she’s always an absolute delight, especially when she’s playing a terrible mother figure (Jerri Blank was a hot mess before she ever showed up, but Piper Chapman’s insufferable insulated white privilege nonsense is all on Rush’s padded shoulders). I was pretty disappointed that she disappears after her part in initiating the plot, but she does make the best of her limited screen time. I also really enjoyed watching tiny Seth Green run around as a screaming terror, and got a kick out of seeing Michael Gross, who will always be doomsday prepper Burt Gummer of the Tremors franchise to me (although I didn’t make the Fred Ward connection that Brandon did). My favorite minor role came from Mary Gross, Michael’s sister, who played the soft-voiced secretary working for the Sheltons; as an actress, she’ll always have a place in my heart because of her involvement in Troop Beverly Hills. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I looked up the name of the actor who played the put-upon desk clerk, Joe Grifasi, but I couldn’t place him in any memorable roles based on a quick scan of his IMDb page; he must simply be one of those classic “that guy” actors.

It was a very minor role that has really stuck with me since watching the film. The narrative saw fit to include a vagrant character who oversees the comings and goings of the Plaza. This is a well-worn comedy cliche: a drunken vagrant sees some unbelievable sight, looks at the bottle in his hand, back at the unbelievable sight, and then tosses the bottle behind him. Normally, this character is never seen again, but this film brings back our friend a few times; we watch him catch sight of the Roses and Sadies coming and going multiple times. All in all, it seems like he gets more screen time than some of the lesser love interests. From the outside, this mostly low-stakes (give or take the fate of Jupiter Hollow, which is easy to forget in all the identity confusion shenanigans) rom com farce occurs entirely outside of the context of this character; as a result, his story plays out as a window into an existential horror that he can only passively observe. The Plaza: if you stand outside long enough, you’ll see yourself come out of there. And then he does! That’s some In The Mouth of Madness… um, madness.

While prowling through the sparse information that the internet has to offer about this film and its development, I read that the sets for the film were so expensive that ABC created an entire television series to use the sets in an attempt to recoup their losses. The series flopped and never made it out of its first season. It does make one wonder, though; would Big Business have worked as an ongoing series? It seems like it would, what with the potential to have stock twin hijinx intersect with stock cultural differences plots.

What do you think, Erin? Would this idea have legs? And in what stock sitcom situations would you most like to see the Shelton-Ratliff sisters (recast for a TV budget, of course)?

Erin: Boomer, I can definitely see at least a two-season Big Business show combining stock twin hijinks and stock cultural differences.  It would take a deft hand to extend the premise outside of the obvious shenanigans.  I’m envisioning a Green Acres meets Beverly Hillbillies situation.  Shoulder pads on the farm!  Country Rose get mixed up with big city Mafia!  Mistaken identities galore!  Pie and jam competitions at the fair!  Rich Sadie turns out to be a heck of a pig-caller!  Moonshine!  Country twins accidentally attend the Met Ball!

There’s at least half a season right there.  The challenge would be extending the premise into something stable and complex enough to keep a show on the air, but the promise of the ensemble cast might make it work.  I wonder if it’s cheaper to find multiple sets of twins or to constantly produce a double effect through camera and editing tricks.

I think that that my best description of Big Business would include words like madcap and zany.  It was definitely a lot of fun to watch, and it looked like the cast was also having a great time during filming.  That always makes a movie better for me.  All in all, I think that it was a solid entry in the filmography of the 1980s.  It’s charming and fluffy, with few dull moments and lots of shoulder pads.

Lagniappe

Erin: The fashions worn by the two sets of sisters are almost characters in themselves.  Big Business is almost worth watching just for the clothes!

Britnee: I really like Poor Sadie’s initial yodeling number that she performed at the Jupiter Hallow fair. “Well, hello, Jupiter Hallow. I know you’re doing fine. Every day you work the factory, every night a jug of wine,” is what immediately enters my head when I think about Big Business. I’m not a big fan of yodeling, but Midler has one of those voices that can make anything catchy and enjoyable.

Boomer: I was a bit disappointed that Sadie Ratliff ended up with (as I interpreted it) Sadie Shelton’s ex husband. They barely shared a scene or two, and she had much more chemistry with the desk clerk.

Brandon: Going back to what Boomer was saying about the vilification of city life vs the deification of the countryside, that push & pull didn’t bother me too, too much, but I will say that the evil “big business” end of the equation felt a lot more convincing & well-developed. I especially appreciated the Reaganomics-speak of the NYC twins’ inherited company, Moramax: “More for America”. As far as satire goes, that specific phrase easily ranks up there with Robocop & Gremlins II: The New Batch in poking fun at the state of class structure in the 1980s, even if most of the film’s message boils down to a simple rich = stressed out & snooty, poor = sweet & serene.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Erin presents Mrs. Winterbourne (1996)
April: Boomer presents My Demon Lover (1987)
May: Brandon presents Girl Walk // All Day (2011)

-The Swampflix Crew

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9 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Big Business (1988)

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