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Twilight – 1998

Director Robert Benton
Screenplay Robert Benton, Richard Russo
Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, Giancarlos Esposito, James Garner, Margo Martindale, Liev Schreiber

It’s pretty well forgotten by now that there was once a movie starring one of the biggest movie stars in the 20th Century called Twilight. And that movie didn’t have any vampires, even if it did have a lot of people ending up dead. The movie is the last of Newman’s two 90’s collaborations with Robert Benton, the first being the brilliant Nobody’s Fool in 1994. This time, with a cast that would have killed in 1988, we have what feels like a last gasp at relevance for a story that no one really asks for or will even remember by the time the credits roll.

The story starts with Newman’s former cop, now P.I. Harry Ross going to Mexico to round up young Reese Witherspoon as Mel Aames. She is recovered, but only after a mishap with a gun that makes Ross a former P.I. and no longer willing to use guns. Then two years later, Ross is still a live in guest of Mel’s parents Jack and Catherine (Hackman and Sarandon). The elder Aames are former Hollywood stars, married after Catherine’s went missing, presumably due to suicide decades earlier. Since the body was never found, do you think it might have something to do with the third act?

Jack is suffering from cancer, newly out of remission and is estimated to not have all that long to live. He asks Harry to deliver a package for him, keeping Catherine out of the loop. This goes about as well as one can expect and soon Harry finds himself being booked and brought into the polices station. He is re-acquainted with old friends, including Channing as his old partner and Garner as a police fishing buddy.

The rest of the film labors through the final two acts. If there are some funny moments, they are offset by forcing good actors like Martindale and Esposito overplaying their roles to fill in the gaps left by Newman’s nuanced openings. Hackman and Garner’s roles feel almost like extended cameos and Sarandon has rarely been this ineffective.

This film is only for those who need to see everything Newman has ever done. There are enjoyable moments brought on by his wink and his subtle smile. Almost every other performance in this film feels out of place. Benton’s idea of a mystery is to pile on a ton of exposition to each scene, then push Harry Ross to another location where he is met by violence, then more exposition. Not exciting, once we’ve gone a few rounds.

This film was considered a bomb at the time, and Newman really didn’t ever find another hit role as lead. It is sad, but time waits for no one. I had this film on my list of “too many stars to be that bad” for decades. My guess was incorrect, but the punishment of getting to watch him isn’t all that bad.

(** out of *****)

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