We'll always have 'Casablanca'--so why see 'Havana'?

December 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring Robert Redford and Lena Olin.

Directed by Sidney Pollack.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

... ** I'm no good at being noble, but neither is Robert Redford, and it doesn't seem to me that the problems of the three little people in "Havana" -- including Redford -- amount to a hill of beans in this world. A desultory, chaotic romantic thriller, "HaI'm no good at being noble, but neither is Robert Redford, and it doesn't seem to me that the problems of the three little people in "Havana" -- including Redford -- amount to a hill of beans in this world. A desultory, chaotic romantic thriller, "Havana" also has the feel of a haunted house: You feel ghosts moving through it, BTC and the ghosts belong to Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, stars of what many think was one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made. They are impersonated, in this telling of "Casablanca," by Redford, Lena Olin and Raul Julia.

It's the same old story, a fight for love and glory, as time goes -- in this case, very s-l-o-w-ly -- by. Too bad it's not the same old script! We have a cynical gambler, the beautiful Swedish wife/widow/wife of a heroic revolutionary, all set against the backdrop of one of the most hedonistic cities of the world, exactly as forces are closing in to change things forever.

But . . . Redford as Bogart? Get a life! And indeed, that's where "Havana" goes wretchedly wrong. Redford plays Jack Weil, a card sharpie who makes his living by running high-stakes poker games for casino hotels. The action having dried up in Vegas -- it's 1958, almost 1959 -- he's returned to Havana, hoping that Havana syndicate boss Meyer Lansky will OK him to run a game in one of his casinos. Redford plays the urbane, slick cosmopolitan Weil as if he's Jeremiah Johnson in from the Grand Tetons. It's Redford as cute-boy, using that dithering, shaggy vague charm that has been so effectively deployed in films like "The Candidate" and "The Sting," but feels completely wrong here. He doesn't have any urban sense and projects nothing like the feral, incandescent intelligence of a Bogart. You always knew Bogart was thinking; you always know Redford isn't.

It doesn't help a bit that this same milieu was much more brilliantly evoked in Coppola's great "Godfather II," up to and including Batista's flight and Castro's New Year's Eve occupation of the city and therefore the island. In Coppola's version -- filmed in an appropriately equivalent Latin slum city -- the squalor and hedonism were everywhere, palpable and real. And Meyer Lansky was portrayed by sly, brilliant Lee Strasberg, one of the great film performances.

By contrast, director Sidney Pollack has built an ersatz-Havana, a huge back-lot city in the Dominican Republic that nods toward the original back-lot sensibility of "Casablanca" (indeed, the whole movie is an imitation '40s contrivance) but which never begins to feel authentic. And his "Meyer" (never adequately backgrounded) is played in a brief, harsh scene by Mark Rydell, as a mean-spirited, profane blowhard.

Pollack and scriptwriter Judith Rascoe may feel they need the studio-phony sense of milieu as an appropriate greenhouse backdrop for the studio-phony range of emotions they're conveying, which consists of endlessly being "noble." Perhaps so. Still, the movie is awkwardly adrift between traditions -- it's never "real" in the naturalistic sense of the "Godfather II," and yet it's not quite phony enough to be a true imitation studio picture.

That lack of decisiveness also covers the movie's politics, too. Deciding, evidently, to make an avowedly apolitical account of the Cuban revolution, Pollack and Rascoe have crafted a story that is undriven by ideological zeal. The Batista regime is effectively brutal and repressive but the revolutionaries -- who would of course prove to be just as brutal and repressive in their own way -- are more or less glimpsed as anonymous soldiers in the background.

That leaves plenty of room up front for the Redford-Olin relationship. Too bad there's more smoke than fire, more him than her. Olin is a lot closer to Ingrid Bergman than Redford is to Bogart, but again his lack of believability renders the affair impotent. There's not much chemistry between them, certainly not enough to explain the absurdity of behavior Rascoe's script requires of Olin. Here's a woman who is a secret revolutionary, captured by security forces with her beloved husband; he's beaten to death, she's tortured grievously. She's freed (owing to Redford's intercession) and in a few hours, her grief and trauma, as well as the passionate politics that have defined her life for over 30 years, are forgotten and she's in bed with Redford, plotting a life of meaningless hedonism. What's he done? Why, he made her a fried egg sandwich. And, I suppose, he's Robert Redford.

Or is he? For a movie that is selling its star's sexual charisma as its first operating principal, "Havana" doesn't have a lot of ooomph. Redford isn't aging nearly as well as the glorious Sean Connery nor as well as several other mid-50s sex symbols like Dustin Hoffman or even Warren Beatty. With a suspiciously tight chin line, hair greased up slickly and sporting a comic wardrobe of somebody's idea of "gambler's clothes," Redford never seems sure of himself. We don't feel his power and pleasure at poker; his affection for Olin comes from nowhere except the script and never explains the spirit of self-sacrifice that, like Bogart, he later comes to represent.

Raul Julia is far more impressive as the idealistic husband who, like Victor Laszlo, may or may not be dead at the hands of the Secret Police; and Alan Arkin has a nice cosmopolitan turn as the casino manager. But on the whole, I don't think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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