October 01, 1990 12:00 PM

Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine

Turns out there was nothing wrong with Carrie Fisher’s novel about a Hollywood brat that couldn’t be cured by cutting most of the jokes, rewriting everything else and getting help from, among others, Mike Nichols, Streep, MacLaine, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Sondheim and Shel Silverstein.

The result is this lemon ball of a movie confection about daughter-mother relationships, enjoyable even when it’s too bitter or too sweet.

Fisher herself adapted the novel. The story is no longer set in a drug rehab clinic, and the addicted brat’s mother is very present, giving the movie context and a spot for the estimable MacLaine. If she and Streep, who plays a minor movie star druggie, look about as much like mother and daughter as Dr. Ruth and Dick Butkus, who cares?

Director Nichols stages a party where Streep sings the Ray Charles hit “You Don’t Know Me” and MacLaine, competitive in the extreme, follows by singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies (with new lyrics kidding MacLaine’s affinity for the supernatural). Streep sings affectingly (she adds a bang-up version of Silverstein’s country tune “I’m Checkin’ Out”); then MacLaine follows, perfectly capturing the tone of a sensitive, ironic artist who is an egregiously insensitive, unaware woman.

Fisher’s script lapses at times into glib foolishness: “Who was that man who slept for 100 years? Rapunzel?” Streep’s character is too whiny and self-pitying. And the ending is too golly-darned sentimental.

But Fisher and Nichols effectively use Quaid, as a perfidious suitor, Hackman, as a stolid director, and Dreyfuss, as a whimsical doctor (all of them in surprisingly brief supporting roles). And they have Streep and MacLaine, whose body language alone conveys a world of frustration, longing and unchanneled (sorry, Shirley) love.

At the end of this movie, there’ll be plenty of dry eyes in the house, but there won’t be many totally untouched hearts. (R)

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