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TWILIGHT

by: Scott Renshaw

I suspect that there was a great deal of good feeling on the set of Twilight, the kind that comes when people believe they're about to make a point.  After all, this would be a film where the title could be interpreted two ways.  On the one hand, it would evoke the appropriately moody atmosphere required in a tale of Hollywood murder, blackmail and corruption, this one centered on a retired private eye named Harry Ross (Paul Newman) and his complex friendship with two aging movie stars, cancer-stricken Jack Ames (Gene Hackman) and his wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon).  On the other hand, it would describe the cast of veteran actors and the charactes they play, all trying to show they are just as vital in the present as they were in the past.  It would be a sly, subtle story brought to life by a group of sly, subtle performers.

Perhaps too sly and subtle for its own good.  As a narrative, Twilight offers virtually nothing you haven't seen in a dozen other mysteries set among Southern California's privileged set:  dirty cops, friends who turn out to be enemies, enemies who turn out to be friends, wads of cash exchanging hands, a little rough stuff, a little gratuitous nudity.  This one happens to focus on the 20-year-old unsolved disappearance of Catherine's first husband, though that focus is fuzzy at best.  Sub-plots and supporting characters materialize with alarming frequency, far too many to be fleshed out adequately in the lean 91 minutes provided by Robert Benton and Richard Russo's script.  Twilight introduces enough ideas about decaying affluence and influence that it always seems to be moving forward.  It just doesn't feel like it's headed anywhere in particular.

The only reason Twilight doesn't feel like a thoroughly generic time-waster -- and in fact offers a moderate level of satisfaction -- is the pleasure which comes from watching great actors share the screen. Newman wears the layers of disappointment in Harry's cop-turned-shamus-turned-drunk life like an old sweater, yet maintains a core of idealistic morality.  His scenes with Hackman, Stockard Channing (as an old flame and current police lieutenant) and James Garner (as another ex-cop gone private sector) spill over with the easy chatter of old friends, directed by Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Nobody's Fool) in his typical restrained style.

In fact, the actors are so good that they might trick you into thinking you're watching well-rounded characters.  It's only when Reese Witherspoon, Liev Schreiber and Giancarlo Esposito stumble over their underdeveloped parts that it becomes apparent how sketchy those characters truly are.  Twilight generally feels rushed together as an opportunity for all these actors to appear in a movie together; for all the talking going on, it's tough to get a handle on who these people really are.  There's a fair amount of sharp, tart dialogue to go around.  Unfortunately, not enough of it is used to bring the characters into focus.

The best clue as to what Twilight is really all about comes from a minor sub-plot which finds several old friends of Harry's mistakenly believing that a gunshot wound has left him -- ahem -- less a man.  Harry laughs richly at the rumor when he learns of it, but the film may take the idea a bit more seriously.  The principal male characters in Twilight all seem to be worrying about the degeneration of their lives into physical ailments, inertia and self-pity; in a town where youth is worshipped, they may be wondering whether or not they can still "perform." It's intriguing to watch both the actors and the characters trying to re-define themselves in the present and put their past behind them.  And maybe that's even enough subtext to give Twilight the edge it needs to make up for its lack of actual text.  The story may be only half-finished, but the stars sure aren't

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