While Kate Winslet was having her diaper changed and Keanu Reeves was sneaking a joint into the prom, an extraordinary thing happened. A cast of actors who have nineteen Academy Award nominations (and five Oscars) to their credit and one of the most accomplished directors in America were making a superb movie for grownups.
It is called Twilight, because the main characters--a burned-out private eye wearing another man's shirt, a pair of retired Hollywood idols and an old-fashioned fixer for the rich--are well past their prime and ready to face the notion that everybody's luck runs out. In Twilight, the characters are used up, but the actors are not. No one in his right mind would claim that Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and James Garner have lost their craft to fogeydom: They may have mileage on them, but they have wisdom in them.
Newman, silvered and craggy now, made a startling return to prominence three years ago with Nobody's Fool, and it's no surprise that he's collaborating again here with two main forces from that project--director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) and the bard of upstate New York, novelist Richard Russo. If anything, they've given the actor even more to work with this time. Newman's Harry Ross, ex-Los Angeles cop, ex-private detective, ex-husband and -father and, lately, ex-drunk, is serving out his days in hand-me-down clothes, running errands for a once-glamorous Hollywood couple who have loaned him the apartment over their garage. Two years ago he retrieved their wayward teenage daughter (Reese Witherspoon) from Puerto Vallarta and got shot somewhere close to disaster for his trouble. Now Harry's their friend. And their laundryman. But some things burn bright among Harry's embers--his amusement with the world's follies, an uncanny instinct and his devotion to a code of conduct. Philip Marlowe himself could be no more honorable.
All of this makes Harry the wrong man--or precisely the right one--to get caught in a classic, noirish tangle of privilege, greed, blackmail, murder and guilt, all wrapped up in several complex forms of love operating at cross purposes.
Benton, who got his start in the movie game writing a little thing called Bonnie and Clyde, and novelist Russo (Mohawk, Straight Man) have come up with a world-championship screenplay here, nuanced, shaded and sharp, in which Newman happily submerges himself. Even in the downhill years, Harry points out, "the world doesn't lose its power to seduce." Indeed. In Paul Newman's twilight, his voice has begun to creak, but he remains as seductive to audiences as the cynical cowboy of Hud or the heroic rebel of Cool Hand Luke--especially when he's got a character this rich to explore.
How about the company? As Jack Ames, a former Hollywood star now dying of cancer and thus losing his lifelong grip on presumption, Gene Hackman continues one of the great movie-acting careers. For thirty years he has elevated his material while letting us glimpse his soul, and the corrupt, magnetic Jack is one of his most fascinating creations. When Harry, the factotum, and Jack, the fallen king, sit down to their usual game of gin rummy, not many words pass between them. But their palpable exchange could furnish the Actors Studio with lesson plans for a couple of semesters.
So, too, Harry's several confrontations with Mrs. Ames, Catherine Ames, in the person of Sarandon. Sitting at the piano, doodling a few notes of "The Very Thought of You," Catherine is at once actress, devoted wife, wanton seductress and guilty sinner, all of which Harry takes in (and doesn't take in), because he's long since fallen in love with her. Once again, their dialogue is minimal, but the emotional tension between Harry and Catherine is exquisite, a masterpiece of detail and timing. When Newman hands Sarandon a just-lit cigarette (they're both fighting the addiction, wouldn't you know?), there's more drama in that than, say, the sinking of an entire ocean liner.
What do Jack and Catherine, people as careless as Tom and Daisy, know about a rumpled ex-cop who gets shot to death in the second reel? What's their relationship to a pair of beautifully drawn blackmailers (Liev Schreiber and Margo Martindale) and to Garner's charming Raymond Hope, the fellow who cleans up messes? That's for the Ameses to know and for Harry Ross, truth-seeker, to find out--even if it means endangering his scrap of a future.
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Meanwhile, Los Angeles hasn't looked this interesting since Chinatown. Benton and company use a dark pier in Santa Monica, an unfinished Frank Lloyd Wright house in Malibu and the inside of a grimy L.A. police station, among other locations, to such splendid advantage that you can almost feel the city, high and low, crawling inside you. By the way, Catherine and Jack's decadent house-on-a-hill, as much a character in this mystery as Norma Desmond's gloomy manse in Sunset Boulevard, was once occupied by Cedric Gibbons and Dolores del Rio.
When you get down to cases, though, it's the characters that really count, and Twilight has the most wonderfully detailed characters of any recent movie. Did we mention Stockard Channing as a witty police lieutenant who was once Harry's paramour? All of them seem perfectly situated in deceit, sublimely afflicted by lust and, in Harry's case, irretrievably driven to claim something enduring and true from the dying of the light.
There is not much else to say. This is great stuff, adult entertainment in the highest sense of the term. In a heartbeat, you might want to watch it again.
Screenplay by Robert Benton and Richard Russo. Directed by Robert Benton. With Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing and James Garner.