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You can't imagine how badly I wanted to admire Robert Benton's new movie. Partly shot (by Piotr Sobocinski, who filmed Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red) in the gorgeous Santa Monica mansion that Cedric Gibbons built for Dolores Del Rio, Twilight boasts a 21-carat cast: Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and James Garner, none of whom have seen their 50s in a while, and Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing, both cusping 50. Vintage cast, vintage mood, that's still no reason to pace the film - a Chandlerish murder mystery woven through a love story that's meant to steam rather than simmer - as if it were a cortege at Forest Lawn.
Droopy and defeated by time and booze (he could be Hud, 35 years on), Newman plays Harry Ross, retired Los Angeles private eye and faithful errand boy to his old friends, screen legends Jack Ames (Hackman) and his sultry, enigmatic wife, Catherine (Sarandon), for whom the detective, along with every other male still capable of coming hither, has the hots. When Harry, after hauling the couple's sullen teenager (Reese Witherspoon) home from the arms of a predatory lowlife (an amusingly bovine Liev Schreiber), agrees to deliver an envelope to an unknown party as a favor to the terminally ill Jack, he stumbles onto a trail of blood and money that leads back to the unsolved disappearance years ago of Catherine's first husband, and hooks Harry back up with Verna (Channing), his former partner and lover.
Benton's checkered career includes the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, co-written with David Newman (word has it, with liberal uncredited help from Robert Towne); the cloying hit Kramer vs. Kramer; and, with Newman and Richard Russo (who also co-wrote Twilight with Benton), Nobody's Fool. In Twilight, Benton tries to pump up a painfully pro forma plot with character drama and meaningful discourse about love, class and power. The actors are saying the right things, only with the slightly panicked air of relatives trying to warm up a family corpse. Neither Sarandon, whose lush sensuality leans more to the blowsy than the ritzy, nor Hackman, with his magnificently battered mug, make plausible patricians. And though Garner, as the family's cleaner-upper in more ways than one, exudes his old lazy charm, Newman is an unaccountably pallid presence. In the absence of a compelling central figure, Twilight just sits there, lobbing movie cliches - among them that overworked stretch of water under the Santa Monica pier - and trying its limp best to do Chandler with seasoning by George Cukor.
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