Friday, May 10, 2019

Just The Hired Help

There are times when you become very aware that maybe you’ve been doing this too long. Not that you have any other ideas. But no matter what, you’re not one of the kids anymore. Robert Benton’s neo-noir detective drama TWILIGHT was released a full 21 years after his acclaimed Art Carney-Lily Tomlin pairing THE LATE SHOW and very deliberately seems designed to go over similar ground—it was even called THE MAGIC HOUR at an early stage before the talk show featuring Magic Johnson around that time scooped up the name. But while THE LATE SHOW feels like it was about many things—a tribute to noir, a look at how L.A. had changed between the 40s and 70s, the inevitability of facing the end—TWILIGHT, now 21 years old itself, is partly about the last thing and offers some noirish flavor but mostly feels like it was about Robert Benton wanting to work with Paul Newman again after the acclaim the two had received for NOBODY’S FOOL a few years earlier. Which, in fairness, isn’t the worst reason for a film existing I’ve ever heard. In its own quiet way, TWILIGHT offers a refreshingly mature approach to its look at people whose time has run out but it never really amounts to much, partly because it doesn’t feel like there’s enough meat in the basic storyline but also because it’s missing some extra element that would make it feel just a little more special. Maybe the whole thing didn’t come together somewhere along the way or maybe Benton simply wasn’t as tuned into the changes in the world as he used to be. Still, it’s not bad to sit through partly since we’re no longer getting starring vehicles for Paul Newman, not to mention a few other people here, so it at least offers the pleasure of spending a little time with him. Which may not be enough for an entire film but, these days especially, it counts for something.

Two years after private detective Harry Ross (Paul Newman) is accidentally shot in the leg while trying to bring runaway Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon) back from Mexico, he is retired, no longer drinking and living in the guest house of her parents, movie stars Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon). When Jack, his cancer no longer in remission, asks Harry to deliver an envelope for mysterious reasons, the errand leads to a surprising encounter with an ex-cop (M. Emmet Walsh) dying from a fresh gunshot wound and firing back, leading Harry to become curious what was so important about that package. As Jack’s health worsens, the case catches the interest of Harry’s ex-partner on the police force Verna Hollander (Stockard Channing), which leads him to seek help from limo driver Reuben Escobar (Giancarlo Esposito) who wants to team up with Harry in the private eye world as well as fellow retiree and old friend Raymond Hope (James Garner) as he investigates the murder which may lead to answers involving the mysterious disappearance of Catherine’s first husband long ago.

Endings come before you know it. In some ways TWILIGHT begins where you might expect a film like it to end, down in Mexico as if it’s the last scene of some NIGHT MOVES/LONG GOODBYE mashup where the main character has hit the end of the line, one fuckup too many and we’ll never return with him to L.A. But here it’s only the first scene (and I doubt they actually went to Mexico to shoot it, but never mind) and unless the rest of the movie is actually part of a dying, drunken haze VERTIGO-style we have to return, you always have to return to L.A., there’s never any escaping once you’ve surrendered to that seduction. You live there long enough you begin to feel like you’re spending much of your time observing the beautiful people from afar and one of them swimming in a pool is a key image in the first few minutes of TWILIGHT, a film partly about staring down at them floating through life as you try to avoid the bitterness which comes with the feeling luck didn’t strike you the same way. Written by Benton and NOBODY’S FOOL author Richard Russo, it’s an easygoing movie but maybe a little too easy without much of a hard bitten noir vibe to go with the storyline and it’s not that there’s a lot wrong with TWILIGHT but there’s not quite enough right with it either. It’s a film made by an older director working with some people close to his own age and it offers a certain amount of gravity to go with that but no real fireworks ever quite take hold, the mystery playing as murky as these things usually do until it all gets simply explained so it’s maybe just a little too clear cut, all the answers put out there. As a result, there’s not quite enough left to chew on, not enough to take away from any given scene beyond the basic plot points with too much of it shot in a fairly ordinary style that lacks a certain texture to give it extra life. There are pleasures found here but they mostly come from just watching Newman and his co-stars play off each other, basically hanging out together in scenes and it’s a pleasant vibe but not quite enough.

It’s a film populated mostly with older people who, rich or poor, are waiting around for nothing in particular, little to do but smoke and play cards and hope they aren’t completely broke as they create their own narratives of the past, hoping no one calls them on what’s being made up and wondering just how much luck, or lack of, played into any of it. Stranded among them, the few younger people in the film seem lost, not a part of this world, nothing but appendages, no real ideas for what their future is supposed to be. The laidback feel extends to how much of the film involves following Harry Ross as he drives from one place to another questioning people, one after the other, basically a showcase for actors to play scenes with Paul Newman but the L.A. locations are missing a distinctive flavor to make them stand out. Even when areas are specified they could have been shot anywhere and with touches like the running gag about a certain place where Harry may or may not have been shot it’s amiable but never quite clicks into place. For one thing, I have the nagging feeling that several of the leading roles seem miscast which means we’re watching great actors play out scenes they never fully inhabit. Newman is a little too neatly pressed and laid back as a worn out drunk, Hackman has the build of someone who could still kick anyone’s ass even though his character is supposedly dying while Sarandon comes off as too jittery for a woman just lounging around the house all day even if she’s not getting the plum roles anymore and trying to light a cigarette while being questioned by Newman feels like a leftover bit of Faye Dunaway business from CHINATOWN. Part of THE LATE SHOW was about how much the town had changed but this time around it doesn’t feel like there’s enough of the L.A. flavor, the details of those crummy valley apartments Harry Ross visits never quite filled in. “Sure beats Los Feliz,” he points out when visiting someone up in the hills above the smog and it’s a great looking modernistic house but the line still sounds like Benton hasn’t driven over to the area anytime recently to be aware of what’s changed.

There’s a maturity hanging over the film involving the ideas of fate and the end coming, they’re just presented too simply as if notes from the studio kept it all from becoming too layered just as the dialogue veers from razor sharp to at times a little too obvious, spelling out all the motivations a little too much. Along with the theme of acceptance that we all run out of luck sooner or later is the notion of how easy it is to be seduced no matter how old you are, no matter how worn down you are by it all, which feels more specific to the fantasy noir vibe the film tries to keep hanging in the air in order to remind us of the differences between the beautiful people, who have their own ideas of what being broke means, and the ones who weren’t so lucky. It’s the sort of thing that I sometimes wonder about myself while stranded in this town and Sarandon gets the big scene to trash her living room when confronted about this, demonstrating what really matters to someone like the movie star she’s supposed to be but it still feels like the film is holding back from the intensity that needs to come out of the moment. Even the plotting is a little haphazard with much of the first half set over one of those movie nights that illogically seems to go on forever, while a number of dissolves and fade outs that recur play as if the film is trying to make the experience somewhat dreamy to go with certain passages in Elmer Bernstein’s score but the device simply halts momentum, the film never quite gathering steam or passion; it was edited by Carol Littleton, no lightweight, but the rhythm moving from scene to scene at times feels off as if some transitional element was cut down. Again, I suspect there were problems but it feels like pieces were removed that might have clarified things or even fleshed them out but for whatever reason the storytelling had to be stripped down to its essentials.

The thing is, noir needs to be something and maybe easygoing isn’t the answer so while it’s not necessary for TWILIGHT to be as fatalistic or cynical as certain genre classics it still needs something else. For a lazy afternoon viewing the film is fine but like Benton’s earlier STILL OF THE NIGHT (another now forgotten thriller, also only around 90 minutes) it’s brisk to the point of feeling a little undernourished. So in spite of the title this isn’t a fatalistic view of the end in sight as much as the pleasant stroll that the final shot becomes, part of a scene that feels tacked on later maybe so the fadeout wouldn’t be quite so downbeat (a few shots not in the film can be spotted in the trailer, including a few from what may have been a darker ending). Part of that might come from how Paul Newman and his relaxed demeanor becomes one with the film, maybe a little too much, but when it comes to what he’s doing in any given shot the film springs to life whether a close-up of him putting the pieces together or even when he rises out of frame leaving his shaking hand in the shot to do the work. It helps us believe this legend playing someone who’s no legend at all, not in his profession and not with the people in his life, just trying to come to some sort of peace with that in the little time he has left while not losing sight of the good man he might almost have been. There’s added enjoyment in his scenes with Reese Witherspoon as the daughter of these two movie stars who knows that she’s just as much a bit player in her own parents’ lives as Harry is, used to not being loved by anyone and already at peace with the feeling since it’s the only way to get through the world. If the two of them had been paired up for the entire film it might have played too much like a 90s spin on THE LATE SHOW but maybe that clash of energies was what it needed. The themes are there and they stand out even more all these years later as I’m further down the line myself but they don’t stick enough. It’s the sort of film that was slightly underwhelming when it was released and is still underwhelming now even as I pay a little more attention to those touches that stick out on each viewing, wishing that it would come together more than it ever does.

That’s the thing about the beautiful people. They do what they want, they believe what they want and they create their own truth. The film begins and ends with a woman asking a man if they love them, each version of the question meaning something a little different, each version of the answer not really mattering. In Los Angeles the truth doesn’t matter anyway, especially when you know what the truth really is. And even the winners run out of luck eventually but you’re still stuck in this town facing the dreams of what you were going to be, the realities of what you never were and all you can do is accept if you really were one of the losers, even if you did decide to finally lay off the bourbon. Gene Hackman’s last moment here as the dying movie star weakly declaring, “I may beat this thing yet,” is his best and one of the most honest the film has, a reminder of how much these people fully deny the truth up until the very end. Which makes sense since it’s a film about endings. Sometimes, especially in L.A., endings that come before you’re ready can feel like they go on for years.

Here’s the thing. I think the three leads are excellent. I mean, of course they are. Paul Newman is that scrappy outsider, even at 73, still commanding the screen and of course one of the beautiful people but he fools us that he isn’t so over multiple viewings he’s the one part of the movie that really crystalizes, his unspoken responses and small gestures always doing more for what’s on the page. Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon are each able to pierce the screen with a glare when asked an unwanted question or even if they’re doing next to nothing in the frame, Hackman drooping down a little more in each successive scene, Sarandon looking a little more assured at the piano. The scenes have teeth in the way you can sense them putting on their characters in order to spar with him but I still can’t help but think they’re never quite these people. Maybe if Newman and Hackman had switched roles that would have made it more of a follow-up to Hackman’s great 70s detective movie NIGHT MOVES than this one ever is to Newman’s HARPER from the 60s, although he never seemed like a star who would have played this type of supporting role, just as I don’t think of Sarandon as the sort to do nothing but lounge around the pool all day.

Oddly, while the three above-the-title stars get the real fireworks it’s James Garner, not even on the poster (this makes me think there were billing shenanigans; he certainly warranted above the title mention on other films during this period), who casually walks off with the film in his pocket, playing a role that on the surface doesn’t seem all that different from what he did in the ROCKFORD FILES reunion movies made around this time but it fits perfectly and the way he digs deeper in his last scene is electric, giving every word he speaks an extra edge in a way that good ol’ Jim Rockford was never allowed to do. Plus his line, “Funny the things you never think about when you’re buying a house,” is probably the best moment in the film, one more reminder of how the past is always going to catch up to you eventually. Either way, it’s a great supporting cast too with Reese Witherspoon bringing a particular freshness to what otherwise may have just been stock character who knows more than she’s saying (and who, for the record, appears topless early on and I’ve learned recently that this appears to be what some people remember about the film more than anything else) but there’s also Stockard Channing and John Spencer working together before THE WEST WING as well as the oddball characterizations brought to it by Margo Martindale, Liev Schreiber, Giancarlo Esposito and M. Emmet Walsh who doesn’t get any dialogue as the awesomely named Lester Ivar but performs one hell of a death scene. While we’re on this subject I won’t mention who gets the other best death scene, but the way that person falls over in such a mournful style, seeming just so sad and fed up with it all, becomes one of those moments you can’t shake. I still think it comes up short but every now and then the film finds its way there.

It’s still a little too bad that the film wasn’t about the 90s the way THE LATE SHOW was about the 70s, which at least would make it a lovely period piece now beyond just the vibe of the decade or my own memory of seeing it at the Hollywood Galaxy, a place now missed by pretty much no one. One odd addendum to this film is that it actually opened in March 1998 on the same day as THE BIG LEBOWSKI, another neo-noir set in L.A., and TWILIGHT even did a little better that weekend (LEBOWSKI was, of course, what I saw opening day but priorities). But even then it was clear that in their aim to be completely irreverent in displaying their love for the form, the Coen Brothers nailed the absurdity in the genre’s fatalistic worldview and the way to ultimately abide while this film was just a little too polite about it all, wish fulfillment of writing a detective movie for the legend who stars in it but not saying anything that hadn’t been said before. It was forgotten pretty quickly and now, over twenty years after it opened, Newman’s gone. Garner’s gone. John Spencer is gone. Hackman is long retired. Sarandon gets attention for other things, but let’s not talk about that right now. Robert Benton hasn’t directed a film since 2007 (FEAST OF LOVE and, since we’re talking about endings, that was the last to ever play at the much missed National Theater in Westwood). Witherspoon, Schreiber, Martindale, Esposito are all fairly prominent these days but films like this aren't made much anymore and that’s the way it goes. Even the title is now famous for referring to something else entirely. TWILIGHT wasn’t Paul Newman’s last film but it’s still a nice place to leave him and watching it again now is a reminder that he’s starting to become another part of the past that gradually slips away. It always does. Time goes by in this town, much as we want to keep it from happening. But if you’re able to make a certain amount of peace with the past and stay off the bourbon, in the dead of night you just may be able to remember that you did what you could.