When you think of Twilight, you think of vampires and werewolves and an young woman torn between the two. Well, that might be the same premise of the 1998 neo-noir thriller from a certain point of view. Yet, a movie like this shouldn’t have be as disappointing as it is with the overabundance of talent here.
Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon are the three top-billed actors with a supporting cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Leiv Schreiber, Margo Martindale, James Garner, Stockard Channing and Giancarlo Espositio with character actors such as M. Emmet Walsh and John Spencer popping up. Even Lewis Arquette, Jason Clarke and Clint Howard pop up in blink-and-you’ll miss it roles. So, why does it feel so dull?
Newman had previously collaborated with writer Richard Russo and director Robert Benton, who also co-wrote the script, on the 1994 movie Nobody’s Fool. So, what happened here? I think the problem is that from the time he made The Color of Money up until his death in 2008 at the age of 83 seems to be cast in all these roles were he playing an “aging character who XYZ” We’ve seen Newman in the same role before and better.
Here, he plays Harry Ross, an agining gumshoe, who finds himself in Puerto Vallarta where he’s tracked down the teenage Mel Ames (Witherspoon) who is there with Jeff Willis (Schreiber) who’s much older. Harry has been hired by Mel’s parents Jack (Hackman) and Catherine (Sarandon). As he’s trying to escort her quickly through the resort, Jeff wrapped in nothing but a shower towel tries to stop them. A scuffle ensues and Harry’s firearm falls to the ground. Mel picks it up but unintentionally pulls the trigger. A bullet richots off the ground and hits Harry in the upper-right thigh.
This later leads to a rumor that Mel shot him in the family jewels. Two years later, either through sympathy or fear of a lawsuit, Harry is living in a spare room on top of a garage at the Ames’ L.A. area mansion. Jack is an aging actor who’s dying of cancer. He’s got less than two years to live. Catherine is younger and supposedly not as famous. And her and Harry have a secret fling.
One day, Jack gets Harry to drop off an envelope of money to the apartment of Gloria Lamar (Martindale) but finds Lester Ivar (Walsh) there, bleeding from a gunshot wound. He also has a gun himself and fires several times at Harry but misses. Lester dies and Harry goes to his apartment because Lester was a private dick like him (and a former cop). There, he finds newspaper clippings of Catherine’s first husband who either committed suicide or drowned in the Pacific Ocean.
And Lt. Verna Hollander (Channing) and other police are actually right behind him to question why he’s at the apartment of a recently murdered man. In comes Raymond Hope (Garner), an old acquaintance of Jack and Harry’s to see what’s going on at the station. Naturally, they question Harry but let him go and Harry continues his Chandleresque jaunt in which he meets Lamar and runs in with a former acquaintance, Reuben Escobar (Espositio), who’s a limo driver but wants to be a gumshoe like Harry.
What happens next is pretty obvious. Sadly, the plot wastes the cast as they go through the standard plot exposition. Mel pretty much has little relevance after the first sequence. And even though they have top billing, Sarandon and Hackman don’t seem to have as big rolls as their listing in the credits would suggest. Maybe there was a better script that was a little longer before studio interference demanded cuts to drop it down to 94 minutes with credits.
Russo is also a novelist so that might explain why it feels like it would’ve been better suited as a novel. It’s no surprise this movie released in March of 1998 ended up being a box office bomb earning just over $15 million against a $20 million budget. Newman reportedly gave Sarandon some of his salary after he discovered she wasn’t paid near as much as him nor Hackman. And she had just won an Oscar a couple of years earlier.
Part of the problem was this movie had already been made a few months earlier and it was called Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino was able to do the same story without all the back story that seems like it belongs in a different movie. There’s not much of a surprise here. You know right when you see a character what their purpose is in the movie. And you also know what’s going to happen to them.
It’s sad because characters like Escobar, Lamar, Hope and Willis, who has a craving for chicken wings all seem like they deserve more screen time or even their own movie. Even the rumor about Harry getting his manhood shot off going through the local law enforcement isn’t handle the right way it should. The late film critic Gene Siskel once said he’d ponder the question of whether a movie was better than a documentary of the same actors having lunch. With a cast like this, you’d love to see them sitting around a big huge banquet table having a good time.
Maybe Benton, who made Oscar-winning movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, should filmed that for an hour and a half instead of this.
What do you think? Please comment.