Female comedy team romps on screen in `Outrageous Fortune'. Long and Midler have a ball - or is it Midler and Long?

They aren't Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello, or even Martin and Lewis. But they make a terrific team, and when the script lives up to their talents - which isn't too often, alas - they unleash a double dose of charm in their new picture, ``Outrageous Fortune.'' I'll call them Long and Midler, instead of the other way around. It's customary, in partnerships like this, to name the chubby or noisy or rubber-faced one (Hardy, Costello, Lewis) in second place, leading off with the befuddled or long-suffering or soft-spoken one (Laurel, Abbott, Martin).

Bette Midler has become a star by turning her chunky form, no-nonsense voice, and versatile features into inimitable assets that suit all sorts of comic situations.

Shelley Long has conquered the TV tube - and now the wide screen, judging from early returns on her new picture - by ideally portraying an ambitious young woman who's almost as smart and savvy and high-toned as she desperately wants to be.

The one full-fledged inspiration of ``Outrageous Fortune'' is the pairing of Long and Midler into a team that adds up to even more than the sum of its parts.

True, the movie would be stronger if it employed its stars more creatively.

Long's role in ``Outrageous Fortune'' is shamelessly patterned after her long-running sitcom part in ``Cheers,'' where she has worked out each nuance of the attractive also-ran she was born to play.

Midler's role in the film also exploits the most obvious dimensions of her talent, even though she tends to shine most brightly when a story contrasts her tough-city-gal image with an ironically posh setting, as in the recent ``Down and Out in Beverly Hills.''

But it's still a pleasure to watch this energetic duo charge through a gamut of absurd scenes, keeping a firm hold on their crazy characters no matter how silly or scattered or sexist the screenplay often becomes.

The plot of ``Outrageous Fortune'' is a trifle. The heroines are aspiring actresses with two things in common: an egotistical acting teacher and a cordial dislike for each other.

One day Long meets a man who's so Mister Right it's ridiculous. When he seemingly dies in a mysterious explosion, she learns that Midler has also been seeing him, in scenes that are oddly missing from the movie.

Then both of them figure out that he isn't dead, but hiding in order to pull off an evil blackmail plan. They decide to track him down - less to foil his scheme than to make him choose between the two of them.

``Outrageous Fortune'' was directed by Arthur Hiller, a competent filmmaker whose best movie - ``The Inlaws'' - made Alan Arkin and Peter Falk into a triumphant new comedy team.

Trying to pull off the same feat with female stars, he trips over a script that's so frenetic it doesn't even try for the consistency and offbeat wit that distinguished ``The Inlaws'' in scene after scene.

There are minor pleasures in ``Outrageous Fortune'' besides the all-out histrionics of its stars. These include a smooth performance by Peter Coyote as Mister Not-So-Right, a hair-raising chase atop the lofty peaks of New Mexico, and a few uproarious gags.

But the talents of Long and Midler, and the comedic flair of director Hiller deserve more solid raw material. Here's hoping they find it soon.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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