Nit-pick if you like about the contrivances in this mesmerizing mood piece about Hollywood crimes and misdemeanors, but it’s more satisfying to sit back and enjoy watching Paul Newman, who is seventy-three and getting better with age, bring effortless style, humor and heart to the role of retired private eye Harry Ross. Harry, an ex-cop and ex-drunk, lives off the dole of two movie stars – Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), who is dying of cancer, and his leggy wife, Catherine (Susan Sarandon), who is dying to bury new revelations about an old murder.
Jack and Catherine can seduce people, especially Harry. You watch him watching the glamorous Catherine dry off after a swim and you register the feelings he keeps inside. Newman can do this with a look, though director Robert Benton, who co-wrote the script with Richard Russo, offers pungent dialogue to nearly match the standard set when the three collaborated on Nobody’s Fool. Benton has an eye for the telling gesture, and everything from the performances to the fluid elegance of Carol Littleton’s editing is in the service of character.
Harry nearly got his dick shot off a while back when he rescued the Ames’ jailbait daughter, Mel (Reese Witherspoon), from a blackmailer. Now his cop buddies, including Harry’s ex-love Verna (Stockard Channing), think his stud days are over. Harry and ex-cop Raymond Hope (James Garner), who also works for Mr. and Mrs. Ames, joke about slowing down. “Prostate acting up yet?” asks Raymond. Harry shakes his head. “Just wait,” says his friend.
The plot creaks, but not Newman. He is a consummate actor, and observing him ignite with the vibrantly sexy Sarandon or fine-tune the grace notes of a scene with such pros as Hackman, Channing and Garner is something uncommon in today’s movies: a privilege.