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.

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Nuts

May 24, 2012

The holiday season will bring many prestige movies; films that compete not merely for immediate box-office receipts but also for honors. These films are released now so that they might win a few year-end critics’ awards, and qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Nuts is such a film. It’s the sort of courtroom drama that allows for large, attention-getting acting, and it carries a potent, serious message. Aside from these credentials, Nuts also happens to be a shrewdly crafted entertainment. That said, it is not, I think, a very good movie.

The matter at hand is a competency hearing to decide whether a defendant (Barbra Streisand) is sane enough to stand trial on a manslaughter charge. She, a high-class prostitute, has killed an abusive client (Leslie Nielsen, in flashbacks). Her wealthy parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) prefer that their incorrigible daughter be sent to a nice rest home and wither away there for the rest of her life. They hire a smoothie prosecutor (Robert Webber) to ensure this result.

The defendant is curiously impassive to her fate. Contemptuous and angry, she socks her own attorney and is assigned a new court-appointed lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Dreyfuss doesn’t think she’s crazy. Smart, hurt, strange, but not crazy. But she won’t even help him help her; she’s uncooperative and disruptive during the hearing. At one point in court he shouts, not without some grudging affection, “This is a woman even a father could hate!”

Dreyfuss’s excellent performance caps his comeback year, and will likely get him an Oscar nomination. He remains the good-humored point of audience identification, since the Streisand character is intransigent throughout.

Streisand will probably bag another Oscar nomination; she also produced the movie and wrote the music. She carries forth with the stridency that marks so much of her work. In Nuts, this is actually useful, however, since the defendant is supposed to be insufferable. But the movie tries to have it both ways: She’s officially unpleasant, but she can lob in some adorable zingers when required. Webber’s prosecutor, for instance, is putty in her hands.

I suspect Streisand may see this script, written by Tom Topor, Daryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, as analogous to her own experiences. For years after Funny Girl, she was the brassy, kooky actor who annoyed people because she wanted her own way, and made no bones about saying so; then she was the would-be filmmaker who spent years battling the Hollywood gender barrier while making Yentl. It’s probable that the Hollywood system belittled her as “nuts.”

Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directs with the professionalism of a veteran. He doesn’t need to be told that the courtroom form is automatically compelling, and much of the movie is enjoyable on the gavel-banging level. Ritt’s supporting cast reads like a New York reunion of the Actor’s Studio: Malden, Stapleton, Eli Wallach (as a psychiatrist), and James Whitmore (the judge, crusty as they come).

Nuts hits a number of provocative issues, and every so often seems ready to delve into really interesting territory. To my mind, it stays on the surface of those issues, which is why, despite its attractions, it’s ultimately a failure.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

No Oscar nominations after all for this overlooked movie—I’m not sure whether that means it’s better or worse than I thought. Babs was getting pretty picky about her roles at this time, which made the autobiographical reading more likely to me. But what an old-school cast, and what a bizarre role for Leslie Nielsen just before he slipped into the world of slapstick comedy.