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‘Nuts’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1987

Don't let the title throw you. "Nuts," with Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss, is not a nauseating Neil Simon comedy. It's a serious courtroom drama -- serious by Hollywood standards -- that puts society on trial.

The story of an apparently mentally ill Claudia Draper (Streisand), accused of manslaughter, is peeled, layer by layer, until new evidence is revealed, which sheds new light on everyone. The built-in surprise forbids detail, but accusing fingers will point to Claudia's parents Rose and Arthur Kirk (Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden), a psychiatrist (Eli Wallach), a D.A. and that familiar whipping boy, the Legal System.

By the end of "Nuts" (based on Tom Topor's play), when the appropriate victory has been won, there's an accompanying feeling of cheapness -- that the villains were easy scapegoats, trumped up; that the performances were played too broadly. But the unfolding of those details is done so well (Streisand collaborated with Topor, Darryl Ponicsan and Alvin Sargent to significantly improve the play), it's definitely worth sitting in court for.

In a case that looks signed and sealed, Claudia's high-priced WASP lawyer Clarence Middleton and her parents are about to declare her unfit to stand trial. They want to commit her for psychiatric treatment. But Claudia slugs Middleton right on the nose. Bloodied, he quits. The judge then strong-arms public defender Aaron Levinsky (Dreyfuss) into taking on this troubled woman, and we have a sort of Defending of the Shrew.

As shrews go, Streisand is -- nails down -- the woman for the role. (She also produced, or rather Streisanded, this movie into completion.) And Dreyfuss, almost unrecognizable behind white hair and beard, shows his stuff. His exasperation, as he tries to represent a very difficult client, is palpable. The serious-screwball tension between them powers the movie along. "You had good," a testy Levinsky tells Claudia when she questions his qualifications. "Now you have me."

The movie, directed by Martin Ritt ("Hud" and "Norma Rae"), makes you go from disliking Draper to (swallow) liking her; it's Hollywood manipulation at its best. You're given little emotional tidbits along the way until the high point. The cast, a sort of "The Longest Day" collection (including James Whitmore and Robert Webber) pumps veteran presence into every moment. And cinematographer Andrej Bartkowiak, who also shot "The Verdict," gives this courtroom a luminescent, eerie graininess.

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