'Wrestling' never lives up to its premise

March 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Hollywood's most venomous evil isn't its worship of guns but of youth. It should make more movies about old people, and they should be better than "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," which opens today at the Orpheum.

Once a high-profile Warner Bros. release, the movie failed to prosper in New York and L.A., and so now it slides into towns on the back-door art house circuit. Both a shame and somehow deserved. How hard it tries; how short it falls.

Robert Duvall and Richard Harris play septuagenarian retirees in a peely, decaying Florida city who live in bitter isolation, nursing memories and illusions, even illusions of memories. They come together awkwardly, become clumsy friends, have a spat, reunite, and then one of them dies.

Of course the title is the best thing about the film, for it gets at one of the great male dilemmas of the day: how to wrestle Ernest Hemingway, that is, how to deal with the predatory, hunting, boasting part of one's personality. And each of the characters -- Duvall's Walter and Harris' Frank -- have metaphorically gone to the mat with the old stud, with differing results. Walter won. He is your fundamental post-Hemingway man: a romantic, kind and decent, he has no need to impose his will on others. Domination as parlor sport holds no dominion over him.

Frank, on the other hand, clearly lost his match. He remains Hemingwayesque to the max, a blowhard and braggart, a fatuous womanizer (though women characteristically loathe him), who's driven away everybody who's important to him and claims, again without evidence, to represent some form of "life force," as opposed to Walter's passivity.

One fundamental problem with the movie is that it finds Frank more interesting than Walter. Claiming to have been a sea captain and to have actually wrestled the writer in Puerto Rico in 1938 (Hemingway would have been in Cuba at that time), he's not that amusing. Harris' hammy, narcissistic performance makes him even less so. In every close-up, you see the Oscars gleaming in his eyes like slot-machine lemons. Walter, on the other hand, is a brilliantly subtle performance by the characteristically elegant, understated Duvall. Watch, for example, how Walter's hand movements are subtly feminine and yet his body posture -- pigeon-toed, cross-legged --is purely masculine. His hands have a barber's softness. When he cuts Harris' hair and gives him a shave, you see a man who is not afraid to touch other men, something that would indeed set a barber apart from other members of the gender. Duvall is aware, and in control, of his body in every scene. And the accent: not generic Spanish but clearly Cuban, yet not showy or inconsistent.

And the best relationship in the movie watches Duvall's hopeless yet touching crush on a young waitress, played by Sandra Bullock. It's a wonderful subplot, because she's a decent young woman who genuinely likes Walter and will never hurt him.

I love the central value of the film: that the elderly are interesting and should be listened to. You won't find that idea in too many Warner Bros. movies. I love Duvall's performance. But the script doesn't quite add up to the portrait of poignancy that director Randa Haines believes, and as an organic whole, "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway" never feels complete or satisfying.


"Wrestling Ernest Hemingway"

Starring Robert Duvall and Richard Harris

Directed by Randa Haines

Released by Warner Bros.

PG-13 rated

** 1/2

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