Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Robert Benton, Richard Russo
Produced by Arlene Donovan, Scott Rudin, Scott Ferguson, David McGiffert, Michael Hausman
Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale
Theaters teemed in the mid-’90s though the early aughts with ill-conceived flicks wherein the presence (if not the accomplishment) of aging headliners was expected to compensate for their underdeveloped screenplays: The Odd Couple II, True Crime, Space Cowboys, Secondhand Lions, etc. Newman prevailed as the lead of Benton’s and Russo’s senseless yet successful schmalz Nobody’s Fool despite its hokum and cretinous contrivances, and while this second cooperation’s far more tolerable, one can’t overlook that not two but four great histrions were squandered by Hollywood’s luckiest filmmaker, who coasted for three decades on the design of digestible treacle produced to placate Boomers, and the success of The Screenplay that launched New Hollywood. In the employ of a fading, moribund star (Hackman) and his equally eminent wife (Sarandon) as a gofer and bricoleur, Newman’s spent, erstwhile P.I. is tasked by the former to deliver a parcel to a blackmailer (Martindale), and predictably lights upon a murder mystery conceived in public suspicion a score earlier more convoluted for its personal than circumstantial complications. Benton’s and Russo’s script’s at constant odds with itself: artful allusion and slick discourse yield as often as they recur to unbearably halfwitted humor; clever references such as a police captain named Egan or Hollywood scuttlebutt recycled as diegesis seem neutralized by the unconditionally needless narration of a useless framing narrative; a fundamentally solid story composed not to boggle but to limn its characters with motivations divulged is encumbered with inane characterization and an imbecile excursus regarding hearsay of a missing penis. Even its worst lines are delivered with natural dash by three enduring leading men; the magnetism of Newman’s indefatigable art hadn’t slackened in his advanced years, especially in tense talk with Method Master Hackman as both invest to their roles and educe from their dialogue a depth of sensibility and interpersonal niceties that the screenwriting duo probably never anticipated. Saddled with a tired type of macho banter distinctive for its artificiality, Garner somehow retains his dignity with a particular poise, but his staid moments are as scant as smoothly rendered. Either misdirection or experience prompt from Sarandon too studiedly sultry a performance (one can imagine her rehearsing every line to bloodless consummation in a plush boudoir) in a part probably written to her strengths; even minor directors have tapped her allure, but either she or Benton forgot that exact diction’s almost a detriment when one appears to be acting. Everyone else — even Channing as a sympathetic detective — is mildly miffing in the background, as Esposito optimizes his simpleminded sidekick, Witherspoon wastes everyone’s time as a photogenic pivot, Martindale’s dedicatedly obese as one of two petty extortionists and Schreiber’s less pestilent than Jeremy Piven as the other. Adequately mirroring the movie, Elmer Bernstein’s score eerily tickles the ear during passages sounded by his idiomatic ondium Martenot, but its pseudo-noir noodling is otherwise annoying. When Benton isn’t stultifying himself or his supporting cast, he does helm some ingratiating conversation and gunplay, but anyone with so much at his disposal should’ve made a good movie. Nothing he penned is so stirring as a conclusive moment when Mean Gene views a clip of himself in Downhill Racer — but not for his forthcoming demise. Only in apposition with the present does the past and all its glories seem so distant.