October 03, 1988 12:00 PM

In a sleazy Big Apple coffee shop in the wee smalls, a man furtively passes a packet to a woman. A drug exchange? Nope. But the woman (Sally Field), a New Jersey housewife and mother of three, has raided the family cookie jar of $500 to feed her habit. She yearns to make it as a stand-up comic, and the man (Paul Mazursky) is selling her jokes. Field is desperate. She wants to be as funny as Tom Hanks, king of the tryout comedy club where she’s been flopping for 13 weeks. Hanks, playing an ego-and sex-driven rat, advises her to base her humor on the things she knows. But the life Field knows is unraveling. Her husband, the excellent John (Raising Arizona) Goodman, has no patience for her mid-life career goal. Hanks is hardly better off. He has just been expelled from med school. On paper, all this sounds good. Onscreen, it isn’t. These early scenes raise expectations of a sharp, spiky movie about the underbelly of the comedy world. It is a movie that writer-director David (Lucas) Seltzer fails to deliver. In a dramatic reversal from his role in Big, Hanks shows astonishing skill in playing a dark character. But Seltzer torpedoes his performance with sentimentality. To reveal the heart beneath that Lenny Bruce exterior, Hanks is shown visiting a dying child in a hospital, holding back his sexual urges with Field and suffering two nervous breakdowns onstage. The first one of them comes in front of his family, the other before TV judges who might be his path to The Tonight Show or Letterman. Seltzer then botches the climactic stand-up scenes with choppy editing that prevents his performers from building a comic rhythm. After reducing Hanks to a sad sack, Seltzer gives Field an Oscar-begging scene of noble self-sacrifice that further trivializes her character and the film. Seltzer put 20 real stand-up comics into this film to ensure authenticity. He should have hired hecklers. (R)

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