In the seniors division of the Buddy Movie Sweepstakes, you could scarcely ask for a classier pair of contenders than Robert Duvall and Richard Harris. Their resumes would daunt Moses, their pride in craft has never been more evident and in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway they both look like they've been aged in oak.
The story will not win any awards for originality--it takes another pair of likable, mismatched retirees down the well-traveled path from loneliness to friendship to death, with some poignant insights and familiar laughs along the way. It's the sparkling interplay between these two accomplished actors that makes the movie something special.
The Odd Couple lives: Frank (Harris) is a boozy, profane ex-sea captain, careless with a boast, messy as a bar fight, still vain about his manhood at 75; Walter (Duvall) is a fastidious Cuban barber, a quiet gentleman who for half a century saw to appearances and enjoyed his pleasures carefully.
Hardly natural friends, but amid the brutal heat of Florida in July these two septuagenarians bond because of what they have in common: A world obsessed with youth and beauty has discarded them in the sun. Under the direction of Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God, The Doctor) the extroverted Harris and the introspective Duvall turn Wrestling into a textbook of telling gestures. When Frank swills from his bottle of Jameson's and brags (for the the umpteenth time) how he took on Ernest Hemingway back in 1938, we see the isolation of a rootless brawler with no one left to fight, or to love. When Walter examines his daily bacon sandwich with the acuity of a jeweler, then turns to his carefully folded crossword puzzle, we see the loneliness of a long-settled man whose roots have been cut.
They share one great scene, almost wordless: Walter gives his unkempt new friend a haircut and a shave, and in those moments everything the film has to say about care and dignity and the trials of the human heart becomes magically distilled. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and more effective than the protagonists' noisy skinny-dipping or some sappy business involving a bicycle built for two.
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Surprisingly, the observant, knowing screenplay was written by a 23-year-old, Steve Conrad, who grew up in a Florida retirement community. His work here echoes Neil Simon and movies like Cocoon, to be sure, but he's also paid his own kind of attention to geriatric reality, from waning sex drives to the torment and glory of memory.
The cast is nicely rounded out by Shirley MacLaine as the hard-bitten but equally lonely landlady of Frank's seedy apartment house, Piper Laurie as an aging coquette who plays out her days at the movies and Sandra Bullock as the friendly young cafe waitress who captivates the very proper Walter.
Haines lays on the schmaltz here and there (Michael Convertino's music does it all the time), and it's clear Harris has occasionally eaten ham for lunch. But it's a pleasure to watch these actors work off each other. Their brilliant buddy duet is one for the ages.