Wrestling With Hemingway (1993)

A tale of intimate friendship between two elderly, highly eccentric men, Wrestling With Hemingway serves mostly as a showcase for the its two stars: Robert Duvall and Richard Harris. Aimed at the same audiences that made Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Used People box-office hits, Randa Haines' drama may achieve moderate success, provided shrewd marketing campaign is waged among its older target audience.

Set in a small Florida town, Wrestling With Hemingway, a story informed by a bitter-sweet, often lyrical sensibility, might as well have been titled “The Odd Couple” for it's based on the age-old theory that opposites attract. Walter (Robert Duvall), a retired Cuban barber, and Frank (Richard Harris), a flamboyant ex-sea captain, accidentally meet in a public park in what turns out to be a fateful encounter that will forever change their lives. The two men are dissimilar, even incongruous, in almost every respect, from their nationality to their profession, personality and philosophy of life. But they share two characteristics that can–and do–overcome any other disparity they may possess: aging and loneliness.

Scripter Steve Conrad's strategy is to first establish the idiosyncratic lifestyle of each man alone, then to cross their paths with a series of interactions set mostly in a park or in a local restaurant, which Duvall frequents daily for his favorite bacon sandwich.

Shy, dignified and gentlemanly, Duvall leads a quiet, orderly life marked by the absence of women–or friends. He's secretly enamored of a much younger waitress (Sandra Bullock), though the film never explains his lack of knowledge or experience with the opposite sex. In contrast, the often-married Harris is still an amorous daredevil, who tries to make it with his motel manager (Shirley MacLaine) and in a local movie house with a proudly reticent woman (Piper Laurie), who rejects him time after time. Harris exhaustingly relishes telling the story of how as a youngster he wrestled macho writer Ernest Hemingway–hence the title.

Script has a few inspired scenes and some poignant dialogue, but not enough to conceal the clanky machinery of the schematic plot which contains too clearly defined turning points–and anticipated climax–of the friendship between the men, one that is mutually sustaining and rewarding. In one of the film's highlights, Duvall finally lets down his guard, takes off his clothes and swims in the nude–following his jubilant mentor. Harris, in turn, learns kindness, gentleness, and compassion from Duvall.

Well-intentioned story, which progressively becomes too sappy and messagey, overstresses the invigorating dimensions of friendship among the elderly.

Wrestling With Hemingway bears strong thematic resemblance to Haines' previous films, Children of a Lesser God and The Doctor, in which she also explored complex relationships between two different individuals, though the novelty here is that both characters are of the same sex. Haines' direction is for the most part proficient, but it's also too expansive and too leisurely; at 122 minutes, the film would have benefitted from at least 15 minutes of tightening. As in her previous work, however, Haines shows great facility with the actors, which is the picture's main asset–and raison d'etre.

The sweet smell of Oscars suspiciously hovers over the film. Though Robert Duvall gets top billing, pic belongs to Richard Harris who turns his role into an Oscar-grabbing tour de force. Beginning with a nude scene, which he does in an unselfconscious manner, Harris throws himself into every situation with too much gusto and bravura.

Wearing a wig and heavy make-up, and sporting a thick Cuban accent, Duvall renders a quieter, more effective performance, though ultimately his understated work also comes across as excessive. Duvall's graceful dancing is one of several touching, euphoric moments, reminiscent of Al Pacino's in Scent of a Woman.

Picture clearly favors the men, with the three women playing sketchy roles that serve primarily as plot functions. Still, Shirley MacLaine, as the lonely but sensitive motel's manager, Piper Laurie, as the coquettishly proud lady, and Sandra Bullock, as the sweet waitress, acquit themselves with modest, unassuming performances.

Tech credits are impressive, particularly lenser Lajos Koltai's sun-drenched palette that captures Florida's unique landscape and contributes to the film's occasional poetic moments.

Credits

A Warner Bros. release of a Joe Wizan/Todd Black production. Produced by Black and Wizan.
Co-producer, Jim Van Wyck.
Directed by Randa Haines.
Screenplay, Steve Conrad.
Camera: Lajos Koltai.
Editor: Paul Hirsch.
Music: Michael Convertino.
Production design: Waldemar Kalinowski.
Art direction: Alan E. Muraoka.
Set design: Carlos Arditti.
Set decoration: Florence Fellman.
Costume design: Joe I. Tompkins.
Sound: Michael R. Tromer.
Make-up: Manlio Rocchetti.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 122 minutes.

Cast

Walter……Robert Duvall
Frank……Richard Harris
Helen….Shirley MacLaine
Elaine…..Sandra Bullock
Bernice…Nicole Mercurio
Ned Ryan.. Marty Belafsky
Georgia……Piper Laurie