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Review: Stars still shine even in 'Twilight' years

Scenes from March 11, 1998
Web posted at: 10:57 p.m. EST (0357 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Astonishing as it may seem, Paul Newman, perhaps the coolest human being now walking the planet, is 73 years old. His iconic, self-deprecating (and, due to the very nature of film, eternally youthful) go-getter performances as Fast Eddie Felson, Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke, among others, have so ingrained him in the American consciousness it's now difficult to comprehend that he's a grandfather and then some.

Unlike most of the movie-made icons who fought, loved, and rode before him, though, Newman's greatest strength lies in an endearing sense of humility. Over the years, his best performances have been infused with a weary self-knowledge, as if he's never quite trusted his abilities or his audience's less-than-perceptive reasons for appreciating him.

That awareness has now come to the forefront. As the years take their toll, he isn't afraid to fess up -- he's an old man, and he knows it.

But what an old man. His performance in "Twilight," Robert Benton's wry but rather disappointing nod to the film noir tradition, is simultaneously tough and resigned ... and, according to my girlfriend, Jill, pretty darn sexy.

Newman plays Harry Ross, a semi-retired L.A. private detective who's seen it all, but doesn't want to tell himself that maybe he's seen enough. Harry is a permanent live-in guest and glorified errand boy at the house of his best friend, Jack (Gene Hackman), a former movie star who's sliding further and faster down the ladder than Harry is.

Jack has cancer and knows that he's not long for this world. His actress wife, Catherine (Susan Sarandon), loves him, but her husband's often bedridden state leaves her an opening to flaunt her passion for the ever-loyal Harry.

Benton (who co-scripted with novelist Richard Russo) has always been something of a classicist. His characters (at his best, he's as good as any screenwriter in the business) often have romance dangled in front of them, but they only grudgingly take the bait when all the other options have failed them.

When Harry is asked by Jack to deliver an unexplained blackmail payment, you almost feel like he accepts the job just to get his mind off of Catherine's languid come-ons.

The come-ons are the furthest thing from his mind, though, when he shows up to find a stranger (M. Emmet Walsh) gut-shot and firing at him.

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As I've already stated, this is a noir story, so Harry finds himself being drawn deeper and deeper into the world of "beautiful people" with too much money and too much power, only to discover way too late that he doesn't have an especially solid idea of what's actually going on.

At least, that's how it's set up. The problem with the script is that Benton and Russo focus far more on character than they do on plot, and the often highly amusing dialogue diffuses any possibility of legitimate tension as the details of the crime unfold.

Benton, who already did this sort of thing in his superb 1977 film "The Late Show," writes crackling dialogue, and most of the best moments come when Harry banters with yet another aging private eye, Raymond Hope (James Garner, whose laconic charm has always contained more than a whiff of the Newman charisma.)

It would have been difficult indeed, in the late 1960s, to imagine these two having a dispiritedly hilarious exchange about the burden of an enlarged prostate, but now they pull it off in high style.

Most of the characters in the film are old pals who may or may not have less than affectionate memories of each other, but I just wasn't able to care all that much about who was on who's side.

For instance, Stockard Channing, as an old police detective flame of Harry's who's now pursuing him as a possible suspect in a couple of murders, is so lackadaisical about throwing him in the can, you don't ever feel like he's in especially hot water. Lukewarm water, maybe, but never hot. And Hackman, oddly enough, is all but wasted in an underwritten role that utilizes his own brand of wise humor but never allows him the much-needed opportunity to blow his cork.

You could, however, do much, much worse. Though several of the characters seem semi-considered (especially Giancarlo Esposito as an inept "partner" of Newman's), the movie is populated by fine actors, several of whom aren't getting the roles they deserve anymore simply because they've been deemed too old by the powers that be.

Newman and Garner can eat schmucks like Ethan Hawke for breakfast (or as a light snack). You should definitely see "Twilight" to enjoy old-school class, before it -- like all the other "outdated" virtues -- is consigned to the trash heap in favor of further idiocies like "Batman IX" or, (you just know it'll happen) "Ace Ventura: The Enlarged Prostate Years."

"Twilight" has some bad language, nudity, and some sexual situations. They're tastefully handled, though. Don't forget to buy some salad dressing. It goes to charity. Rated R. 96 minutes.


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