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‘Tin Men’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1987

Barry Levinson has always looked at his past through rose-colored glasses. And "Tin Men" marks his return to Baltimore -- the home town he celebrated in "Diner," his gem about coming of age in the '50s. Time waits for no men, and in 1963, it's certainly not waiting for the "tin men," those groveling salesmen who convinced so many gullible citizens that their houses desperately needed aluminum siding.

BB Babowksy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito) are "tin men" from competing firms who run into each other -- literally -- when Dreyfuss backs his new Cadillac out of the showroom and a distracted DeVito plows into him. After venting their anger over this chrome fender-bending, things rapidly escalate to the Hatfield-McCoy stage as the two take turns as human wrecking balls, much to the amusement -- and bemusement -- of their fellow "tin men." Besides Baltimore, Levinson knows a thing or two about Cadillac mythology, and watching Dreyfuss park his loaner Chevrolet in a sea of high-finned Caddies is like watching a porpoise adrift among sharks.

Both Dreyfuss and DeVito are consummate petty hustlers with short fuses and obsessive anger, so it's not surprising when Dreyfuss decides to extract the ultimate revenge by seducing DeVito's bored and neglected wife Nora (Barbara Hershey, trying too hard to look mousy). Complications arise when Hershey, having no idea what the game is, falls for Dreyfuss, who, at his moment of triumph telephones DeVito and crows, "I just poked your wife."

At which point DeVito kicks Hershey out off the house and the plot slickens -- "Tin Men" is least interesting when it's most domestic. Once Dreyfuss and DeVito start working their way back to reasonable behavior, Levinson doesn't seem to know what to do with them.

Dreyfuss, who's looking more and more like Paul Newman these days, seems quite comfortable as a hard-working sleaze, less so when love redeems him. DeVito, who has been virtually typecast in this kind of role, handles it better here than in any of his recent films. His New York accent and attitude are muted and his nastiness and self-centeredness are less caricature than in character.

The greater charm of "Tin Men" is in its affectionate portrayal of small-time hucksters who gloat over classic scams (like cutting seven inches out of the middle of a yardstick so the square footage will be higher). "Where is it written in the Constitution that a man can't hustle for money?" someone asks. Working in pairs and with better pitches than any Oriole, these "tin men" never lack heart or hustle.

But the times they are a-changin' -- the IRS is hounding the previously cavalier DeVito and a newly empowered Home Improvement Commission is investigating the tin men's dubious practices. It's like the Wild West when the law arrived. Told they're going to have to abandon the scams, one tin man sighs and wonders, "What's left?" In its own way, the film is a bittersweet drama, a sort of "Glengarry Glen Ross" without the vitriol.

The supporting tin men -- many of them veteran comics like Jackie Gayle, Stanley Brock and Bruno Kirby and actors Seymour Cassel and John Mahoney -- are the real joy here, colorful characters doomed to ungainly bodies and wardrobes that are a succession of visual punch lines. Levinson obviously enjoys plunking them down in restaurants and diners where they can exhibit their meandering attention spans and world views, as in an analysis of "Bonanza": "A 50-year-old guy and three 47-year-old sons . . . no wonder they all got along."

Levinson's tin men are the background clientele in "Diner" brought to the foreground. And anyone who saw that film knows Levinson has wonderful ears and eyes for the blue-collar details of Baltimore. Because enough of the city has remained untouched by gentrification, he hasn't had to construct an impressionist version of his memories -- Levinson even uses his childhood home in one scene. "Tin Men" will do as much for Maryland as "Hoosiers" is doing for Indiana, in part because of the beautifully suffused period cinematography of Peter Sova (who also did "Diner").

Levinson's only real failure is to come up with a convincing ending; it's too bad the film runs out of gas before it crosses the finish line. And while he makes effective use of period music (though Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" is off by three years), he's less successful incorporating live performances by the Fine Young Cannibals, a British group whose lead singer, Roland Gift, has an ancient voice but not the concordant appeal.

"Tin Men" contains some profanity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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