The most lunatic thing about daytime soap operas is that they don't seem loony at all. Regardless of how outlandish the melodrama the addictions, affairs, and ''tragic'' diseases, the never-ending cycle of scandalous backbiting the lurid shenanigans always unfold in the same airless, low-key atmosphere, with bland actors reciting their lines in an earnest daze. Yet that's never what soap opera parodies feel like. In Soapdish, everyone carries on in the shrieky-hysterical style of Harvey Korman. The movie is so busy reminding you of how outrageous soap operas are really, folks, these are wild, wacky shows! that by the end your ribs ache less from laughter than from being elbowed.
The characters in this aggressively broad satire include Celeste Talbert (Sally Field), the popular but aging star of America's favorite soap opera, The Sun Also Sets; her bitch-goddess rival, Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), who'd love to claw her way into the spotlight; the show's nebbishy producer (Robert Downey Jr.), whom Montana has promised to sleep with if he can nudge Celeste out; a broken-down stage actor (Kevin Kline) who's been brought in to boost the ratings even though, 20 years ago, he had a legendary breakup with Celeste; and the show's head writer (Whoopi Goldberg, in a disappointingly tame performance), who's always trying to keep the peace. Kline, as always, has a good time lampooning his own hamminess. One of the film's few high points is his dinner-theater performance of Death of a Salesman. Field, though, is such a prim and tightly wound actress that her parody of superstar vainglory ends up seeming as obnoxious as the real thing. The whole movie is plastic and vaguely patronizing, and there's an ugly undercurrent of misogyny in the character of Montana, who's such an abrasive harpy that the movie seems to take special delight in humiliating her. Soapdish makes the tackiness of soap operas seem far more desperate than funny. C-