Fallen Angels

A movie starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, and Stockard Channing ought to be a whole lot better than Robert Benton's Twilight. It's one of those "autumnal" movies about a private detective who is too old for the game but still goes through the motions.

Benton, in fact, made one of these years ago, in 1977: The Late Show, starring Art Carney. It's probably the best film he's ever directed; the rue and desperation in it were deeply felt. But Twilight is all poses and fogged-in platitudes. It's ironic that 21 years ago Benton, at age 44, made a movie about the dying of the light that's a lot more lived-in than this piece of pastoral mush.

Harry Ross (Newman) is a retired L.A. private investigator living in the home of his old friends Jack Ames (Hackman), a fading screen legend dying of cancer, and Ames' wife, Catherine (Sarandon), a blowsy beauty who seems to have a special feeling for Harry. Two years ago Harry -- in the sequence that opens the film -- did Jack a favor by retrieving his uncooperative daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) from a Mexican fling with a second-class roue (Liev Schreiber). In the process Mel shot Harry in the leg. Perhaps that's why Jack keeps Harry around: He's grateful and guilty. They spend their days playing poker for imaginary astronomical stakes, while Catherine slowly bats her hazy, Betty Boop eyes at Harry.

We're supposed to see Harry as a fallen angel -- he once was a husband, a father, and a cop -- but he seems more like an over-the-hill Kato Kaelin. When Jack, sensing his own demise, sends Harry on another errand, the murder mystery kicks in. Garner puts in an appearance as a hard-drinking "fixer" for Jack, and Channing is the old-flame cop who busts Harry but still loves him.

Benton isn't very interested in the murder mystery, though, which may be another way of saying he isn't very good at constructing one. What concerns him is the mystery of his characters. These characters, however, are no more compelling than the plot. The real mystery in Twilight is why so many highly talented people would put themselves through these duller-than-dull paces.

Nobody speaks much above a whisper. Perhaps the actors were trying to muffle their dialogue. Some of it, alas, still comes through -- like Jack's, "Looks like we all run out of luck in the end," or that old chestnut, "You think you beat the odds but you don't." Benton as screenwriter has done better. Working either by himself or with others on projects like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he's produced some of the best dialogue in American movies. But here he appears to be calling up lines from a computer screenwriting program. (NoirWriter?)

In trying to give us "more" than a standard private-eye thriller, Benton, who cowrote the script with Richard Russo, actually gives us less. He's in love with his characters without having any real feeling for them. What he's really in love with is the nostalgia they inspire in him. And that nostalgia is mostly drawn from old movies. Twilight seems more like an elegy for faded film noir than it does for faded lives. Benton may not be able to differentiate between the two anymore; for him, as for a lot of veteran directors, and younger ones too, films have become the touchstone for experience. Twilight is a movie about movies. When, say, Tarantino does this sort of thing, he at least gives it a funky postmodern spin. But Benton appears to be directing in a time warp -- the late '40s-early '50s, to be exact. He tries to turn the torpid old-fashionedness of this film into a mark of integrity.

The casting of Hackman, Garner, and especially Newman, carries an extra weight of associations. We're meant to respond to them not only as actors but as icons. And these performers seem all too ready to trade on their world-weariness. It's never a good sign when this sort of thing happens; basically it's just showoff movie-star stuff made to look like something "deeper." What becomes a legend most? Not acting like a legend.

Some have said that Twilight may be Newman's last film. He certainly doesn't need a fantastic fade-out to certify his career. As one of the few great movie stars who is also a great actor, Newman is so beloved by movie audiences that, even in his seventies, he doesn't need to do anything except flash his been-through-it-all handsomeness and we're hooked. He was somewhat overrated in his last outing with Benton and Russo, Nobody's Fool (1994), but he had a grace in that film, a feeling for how age slows you down. In Twilight he's so slowed down that he's almost frieze-like.

Newman has always been a most unassuming star, like his European counterpart, the late Marcello Mastroianni, who also was at his best playing characters uncomfortable with their own male plumage. Casting Newman in a role that's already damped down is a mistake; it cancels him out. In Twilight he folds into the overall lethargy. He turns himself into a hologram -- faint and faraway.

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