Murphy’s Romance

July 23, 2012

In the opening scenes of Murphy’s Romance we see Sally Field bring her young son (Corey Haim) to a small Arizona town where they’ve rented a ranch house, and set about fixing the place up. They get out the hammer and nails and paintbrushes, and Field puts out leaflets for her new horse-stabling business.

You think to yourself: Is this going to be another movie in which the indomitable Field establishes herself against all odds in a rural setting, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process?

The answer is no, not really. Oh, there’s a bit of that in Murphy’s Romance, and Field will probably get another Oscar nomination, but the film has other fish to fry, and they are very flavorful ones.

For the most past, it’s a low-key portrait of people just trying to get by—not winning big battles, but just trying to make life work out. As such, it’s an immensely appealing character study.

Field plays Emma Moriarty, a divorcee who may be getting involved with an older widower, Murphy Jones (James Garner), who owns the town drugstore, and who is something of an eccentric. He’s a stubborn old coot who prides himself on the shine on his 1927 car, plays the fiddle at the town dances, and is reportedly working on a chili cookbook. Garner is a natural in the role, the best film work he’s done in many years.

This maybe romance is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Field’s ex-husband, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a classic ne’er-do-well who moves back in with her, although their relationship remains platonic. He just needs someone to sponge off of for a while.

It’s a measure of the good feeling of Murphy’s Romance that even Bobby Jack, undeniably a weasel, is seen with some measure of sympathy. Director Martin Ritt, who guided Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae, creates a very placid, likable world in this film, and everyone fits into it in some way.

Ritt’s unhurried rhythms allow time for some lovely moments: three people sitting on a town bench, enjoying the stars on a clear night; a bingo game at the Elks club; a quiet kitchen during a big barbecue, as Emma tries to get Murphy to disclose his age.

These moments are sweet, but not icky, largely because of the charisma of the stars. It’s an old-fashioned movie that way. It unabashedly relies on star power to communicate character traits not contained in the screenplay. Luckily, Field and Garner are well up to these demands.

The score was composed by Carole King, who also sings several songs on the soundtrack. These add to the laid-back atmosphere. So does the small town itself – Florence, Ariz, according to the credits – which, by the authentic feel of its main street, looks like a wonderful place to be.

Ritt allows his story to ramble somewhat more than it needs to, and one may question the use of so many romantic sunsets. But quibbles tend to fade away in the light of the pleasant glow that emanates from this movie’s quiet appeal. Murphy’s Romance provides, in an old-fashioned way, a real nice time.

First published in the Herald, January 30, 1986

Well, I wish I’d done a better job of talking about this movie, which really is pretty nice. Martin Ritt, while not giving off a strong movie-movie vibe, was able to hit the ball solidly now and again, and it’s somewhat surprising to see that he worked steadily through his career. Somewhere in there, if I’m remembering it right, is a scene in which Field suggests going to a movie with Garner, whereupon he gets a faraway look in his eyes and says, “I haven’t been to the movies since the Duke died.” Which is just exactly what that fellow, and many like him, would say. I like the line, I like the movie.


Sunset

May 4, 2012

Sunset is a moribund movie made by a collection of people who have an abundance of talent. How does a movie like this go wrong?

The most immediate answer is that the writer-director, Blake Edwards, has run out of gas. Edwards’ Hollywood career has been marked by unusual intelligence, which he applies to his favorite forms, slapstick and farce (10, Victor/Victoria). But Edwards seems to have lost his verve. Sunset crawls along with little conviction or life.

It’s a nifty idea for a movie. The conceit is that the cowboy movie star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) would meet the real cowboy Wyatt Earp (James Garner), who’s been hired as a technical advisor for a Mix film. Then the two get involved in a murder mystery set among the golden movie people of 1920s Hollywood.

The crucial failing of the film is not that the murder plot is bad. It is, but that’s not so important. The big problem is that the relationship between Mix and Earp is utterly uninteresting. They hit if off immediately in a bland sort of way, and they remain in that mode for the entire film. There’s no development, no change, no interest.

Garner, the smooth old pro, is the most appealing element in the movie; his Earp is courtly, civilized, but takes no guff from anybody. Willis, however, is completely lost (and quite secondary to Garner). But it’s not so much his fault; the film simply gives him no character to play, so he walks around smirking and looking outrageous in his sequined cowboy suits and 20-gallon hats.

The supporting roles are played by good people who don’t have a lot to do: Mariel Hemingway is the owner of a brothel where the murder takes place; Malcolm McDowell is in nasty form as a sadistic studio head who used to be a baggy-pants clown known as the Happy Hobo; Patricia Hodge (the fine British actress from Betrayal) is his wife, Earl’s old flame; Kathleen Quinlan is a public relations person and the film’s liveliest performer.

It’s a puzzling film. One could believe that the movie was damagingly cut at some point, but even heavy cuts couldn’t excuse all of the lameness here. Unfortunately, Sunset sounds like an all-too-appropriate title for this stage in Edwards’ career.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I seem to remember some talk about a writer’s strike that may have rushed this one into production, or maybe that’s just an excuse. A complete miscalculation, anyway, this movie. And, after Blind Date, a definitive botch of what should have been a useful collaboration between actor and director.


Tank

May 3, 2012

There’s nothing like a good revenge fantasy to get the blood working. Especially when you make the object of the audience’s hatred a bigoted Southern sheriff. It’s practically sure-fire.

As it turns out, Tank, the newest cinematic revenge story, is so-so. The plot is formulaic: hard-nosed Army sergeant moves into a military base near a small Southern town. He manages to make the town’s sheriff very angry. To strike back, the sheriff arrests the sergeant’s lightweight son on a bogus drug charge and sends him away to a work farm. The sergeant must go outside the law and make his own kind of solution to the problem: vigilante justice.

The curve ball here is that the sergeant owns his own customized Sherman tank. Now, when you’ve got a mind to bust your son out of a heavily-guarded prison farm, one of those tanks can come in pretty darned handy. And this tank does the trick: Sarge and son are soon off on the lam through the Georgia underbrush, heading for the state line.

Tank doesn’t really take any of this too seriously. It attempts a light-hearted approach during its first half, and then settles in for the big chase. Unfortunately, the results are just lame; in this case, the predictability of the story’s outcome takes the gas out of the narrative’s forward drive.

James Garner is in agreeable form as the sergeant; Shirley Jones plays his spunky wife. She says grown-up things here the likes of which she hasn’t spoken since she won an Oscar playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry in 1960. Jones is probably a very nice woman, but she couldn’t act hip if her life depended on it, which I hope it never does.

G.D. Spradlin adds bite to the movie with another one of his roles as a thoroughly despicable, barely human villain. If you don’t recognize the name, perhaps you remember the snake’s eyes or the shark’s grin, from the butt-breaking coaches in North Dallas Forty and One on One to the Army bigwig who sent Martin Sheen up the river in Apocalypse Now. Spradlin plays the sheriff, of course, and he’s as irredeemably vile a creature as you’d ever want to see. Thank heaven for that, or the movie would really be a drag.

Actually, once the big chase starts, the basic dramatic tension of how they’re going to get to the state line takes over, and Tank becomes sporadically involving. But even the chase goes on too long, and you start thinking, can the Tennessee state line really be that far?

Director Marvin Chomsky should probably take the rap for that. He’s helmed a bunch of those respectable TV miniseries, such as “Holocaust” and “Roots.” You could look at five minutes of Tank and say, “Yep. TV director.” There’s a world of difference between the media, or art forms, or whatever you choose to call them. A miniseries can plod along for hours, but a motion picture has to move. Chomsky’s misplaced deliberateness insures that Tank remains a clunky vehicle.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1984

It seems that, even if most movies drop into obscurity, you might hear mention of them once or twice in your lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a reference to this utterly blah movie, a non-event of the blandest kind. It sounds as though Spradlin might’ve been worth seeing, and Garner has his persona. But that is assuming this movie actually existed in the world, which I can’t verify.


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