directed by Robert Benton
Paramount Pictures, 1998

A bikini-clad young woman slices through the water of a pool in Puerto Vallanta, Mexico, followed by her doting young beau. Together they bounce from the pool to the bar to the bedroom and beyond. Truly they don't seem to have a problem in the world. Except for Harry Ross.

Ross (Paul Newman) is a private investigator sent to Puerto Vallanta to bring the 17-year-old, bikini and all, home to her father, Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), a former movie star and husband of Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon), another former movie star. Together, with daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) they live the good life in southern California. Or seem to.

Because, as in all movies built around the machinations of a private eye, the past is about to jump up and take a big bite out of someone, and people are trying their darndest to make sure it isn't them.

In addition to the aforementioned, the usual suspects this time around include Stockard Channing as a police lieutenant, James Garner as a retired private eye, M. Emmet Walsh as a retired cop who may or may not be blackmailing the Ameses and Giancarlo Esposito as a detective wannabe who suffers from the delusion that he's Ross' ex-partner.

That makes Twilight almost as densely populated as it is scripted. In true detective-fiction fashion, Twilight is written as much to confuse as it is to entertain. The problem is, it accomplishes its first objective, but misses on the second.

Newman's features have graced many a film since he made his big-screen debut in 1954's The Silver Chalice. Hackman's have graced almost as many, and Sarandon, Garner and Channing have racked up quite a few credits as well.

So how the five of them could end up in a film as graceless as Twilight would seem to make an interesting tale -- certainly more interesting than the one told in Twilight.

It has its moments, especially in the early going, when Ross and Jack Ames exchange witty repartee, Ross and Catherine Ames exchange furtive glances and Ross and Liev Schreiber (a.k.a. the doting beau) exchange shots and blows. It even feigns some moves towards a theme: trust.

"You were a police officer. How did you know who to trust?" Mel Ames asks Ross.

"I didn't," Ross replies. "I learned who not to trust."

That fine line is an important one in Twilight, especially when Ross begins to suspect his benefactors, the Ameses, of having orchestrated the disappearance of Catherine's first husband some 20 years earlier.

But like much that is good in Robert Brenton's film, the theme quickly gets lost in a patchwork of visual cliches, a script that's better at causing complications than curing them and an erratically bombastic score that sounds like it belongs on a bad cop show. And when, after all this, Brenton tacks on a happy ending, you know both you and he have stayed too long.

Talent like Newman's or Hackman's or Sarandon's is rare. Sadly, films like Twilight aren't.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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