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.