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'Sunset' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 29, 1988

When James Garner makes his entrance as Wyatt Earp in the new Blake Edwards film "Sunset," dressed all in black and sporting a natty mustache, you may feel a little surge of pleasure shoot through your system. This comes partly from seeing him decked out again in his old "Maverick"-style western gear and partly from seeing a seasoned performer, whom you've watched for decades, in a role that fits him perfectly. And you're happy to see him looking fit and prosperous.

Admittedly, this is a minor pleasure, but for the first section of "Sunset" it at least keeps your interest up. Set in Hollywood in 1929, the movie centers on a fictitious meeting between Earp, who comes to town to act as technical adviser on a movie about his life, and the silent cowboy star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis), who's to play him in the film.

In a sense, this is merely another variation on the standard buddy formula, but the pairing here actually allows us to look at and compare the real-life western hero and the tinsel rendition. The partnering between the stars, too, is redeeming. Edwards has written his heroes as kindred spirits, not because they're larger than life, but because they're not. Or not always. And it's the shared awareness that they're at least part sham that makes them instant friends.

Watching him on "Moonlighting," or in his lamentable Bruno incarnation, you wouldn't think that this sort of role would be within Willis' range. Willis is the coolest human on the planet, and such immense coolness demands its own space, but he plays Mix as a guy who knows where the image stops and the reality begins. Willis' Mix is a star who's made peace with his stardom and who doesn't allow the incongruity of his phenomenal good fortune to stand in the way of his enjoying it.

The most appealing aspect of Willis' performance, though, is the subtle way in which he steps back to showcase Garner. And in the early part of the film, when Edwards is laying out his characters' personalities, and we're allowed to watch them interact, the movie is airy and enjoyable.

But just at the point when we expect the movie to broaden, Edwards introduces a tangled murder plot involving the proprietress of a local brothel and the son of a studio head, and the opposite effect is achieved. And instead of growing, our enthusiasm shrinks as well.

The odd thing about Willis and Garner, too, is that for all their skill, they are both small-screen stars, not movie stars. This is partly why "Sunset," which is like a TV movie writ large, seems so paltry and dismissible. But Edwards seems more comfortable working with smaller-scale performers, and perhaps that's because he's such a small-scale talent himself. There's something cramped about Edwards' vision of what a movie is; his films look as if they were conceived for airplane viewing.

In the past, Edwards has come up with multilayered ideas for movies -- like "Victor/Victoria" -- but when he attempts to bring them to life on screen they flatten out. In "Sunset," he attempts to use the Hollywood setting as a backdrop for his reality and illusion games.

But Edwards' sense of Hollywood artifice has no swank or glamor. In one scene between Earp and the studio chief's wife (Patricia Hodge) we're shown what is supposed to be a lavish Hollywood mansion, but the glitz is on a sub-"Dynasty" level. If we use his movie as a barometer of his taste, then Edwards is the sort of sophisticate who chases his Beluga caviar with Bartles and Jaymes. And his sense of reality is equally banal.

Ultimately, "Sunset" plays like deluxe dinner theater fare. It's a diversion to take along with your after-meal coffee and dessert. Garner's western suavity is the only grace note. Few performers have generated the sort of good will that Garner has, and this may be the most solid work he's ever done in the movies. The figure he cuts is an evocative one. Watching him, you may think you smell a trace of sagebrush.

"Sunset" contains some mild violence and adult situations.

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