In the summer of 1980, moviegoers watched a young Brooke Shields get her first period in The Blue Lagoon. Now, 33 years later, Shields can be seen experiencing the initial sweaty signs of menopause in the forgettable comedy The Hot Flashes. The circle of a child star’s life: It’s a lovely thing, isn’t it?
Actually, if The Hot Flashes genuinely explored the humbling horrors of entering the post-fertile years, it might have become a riff on an aspect of the feminine experience rarely depicted in contemporary cinema. Instead, it focuses its attention on a basketball tournament that benefits a breast-cancer-related cause, and casts its middle-aged female ensemble as a team of scrappy, creaky-jointed underdogs. Call it White Menopausal Women Can’t Jump. Or Susan G. Komen For The Cure Presents Hoosiers.
The problems begin with the story’s flimsy premise. Beth (Shields), a wife, mother, and one-time high-school basketball star, realizes that her failure to file crucial paperwork has led to the closure of a mobile mammography unit in her small Texas town of Burning Bush. To re-open it, she needs $25,000. She decides the only way to amass that cash is to recruit several of the community’s more mature lady hoopsters to play a series of fundraising games against the local high school’s sprightly state-champion girls team.
“We’re all smart women,” says Wanda Sykes, who plays Florine, one of those reluctant recruits, and the first African-American mayor of Burning Bush. “I’m sure that we can think of another way to raise money.” Yes, Wanda Sykes, it would seem like there’s another way: say, a Facebook campaign, or maybe a good old-fashioned car wash. But if other fundraising options were exercised, The Hot Flashes wouldn’t be able to travel the road its screenplay demands, one involving “hilarious” practice-drill montages, cat-fights between teammates, and excessively long game sequences that make the basketball scenes in High School Musical seem polished and sophisticated.
The Hot Flashes follows the same template used in every root-for-the-underachievers sports movie, from The Bad News Bears to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh to The Mighty Ducks. That basic template can still entertain when splashes of unexpected color are added to its carbon copy of a plot sketch, but that doesn’t happen here. Under the direction of Susan Seidelman—who first focused on a lost woman with identity issues in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan—the leads in The Hot Flashes come across as one-dimensional, pseudo-feminist clichés whose conversations seem contrived and whose jokes land with the thud of airballs clunking on hardwood. “I’m not saying people here are behind the times,” cracks Sykes during one exchange with Shields, “but some are still trying to adjust to Bill Cosby being a doctor.” That’s the funniest moment in the movie.
Shields manages to maintain some dignity during the awkwardly orchestrated on-court antics, infusing Beth with a twangy, Tami Taylor-esque stubbornness that makes her the closest thing in the film to an actual woman. She could have opted to pratfall and Lucille Ball her way through this mess; instead, she treats her beleaguered housewife character with respect that outclasses the material she’s been handed.
Not all of Shields’ co-stars emerge so unscathed. As a barely closeted lesbian, Daryl Hannah mostly hides behind her curly tangle of a red wig, perhaps hoping to escape viewers’ notice. And Virginia Madsen—who stepped into the role of Clementine after Melanie Griffith dropped out mid-production—gets stuck playing “the slutty one” whose utterances drip with sexual innuendo. It’s sobering to recall that just eight years ago, Madsen was an Academy Award nominee for her luminous performance in Sideways. It’s especially sobering to recall this while watching her hold a pair of basketballs and slyly announce, “I always know how to handle balls.”
The Hot Flashes doesn’t just rah-rah about sisterhood. It celebrates minorities of many kinds—African-Americans, overweight people, gay people, little people—and commands its audience to celebrate them, too. Certainly all those groups are underrepresented in mainstream American movies. This sitcom-y effort may serve as a reminder that they deserve more time in the spotlight. But watching The Hot Flashes is also a loud-and-clear reminder that they, along with women of a certain age, deserve a hell of a lot better.