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‘Tin Men’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1987

Back in 1963, a salad bar was still a smorgasbord, "Bonanza" was America's favorite TV show and the bossa nova its favorite beat. But most significantly, aluminum siding was born in Baltimore. And along with the siding came a breed of fast-talking salesmen who called themselves tin men. They hustled the homeowners with their creative scams, and celebrated their fat commissions over fried eggs at the Fells Point Diner.

Across the aisle was "Diner" writer-director Barry Levinson, who now serves up "Tin Men," every bit as beguiling and loosely structured as his first Bal'mer movie. Here, Levinson embellishes his memories of those Damon Runyonesque days in a sentimental celebration of the soldiers of capitalism.

A master of mood, if not momentum, Levinson offers a loving recreation of the aluminum interlude (it wasn't quite an era). And he lets the characters take us where they will, like dogs on a leash snuffling trees. Though a generation older than the "Diner" kids, the tin men prove as irrepressible, and irresponsible.

"Bonanza"-bashing, Sinatra and the reprised character Bagel (Michael Tucker) connect the friendly Levinson films. "Tin Men," with Danny DeVito, Richard Dreyfuss and Barbara Hershey, tries for a more linear story that focuses on the relationship that develops between two rival rapscallions after a crunching first impression.

Dreyfuss, as "BB" Babowsky, has a 16th of a mile on his Cadillac when he collides with a regal ragtop driven by Ernest Tilley, a tough-as-nails tin man played by DeVito. The fender-bender escalates into a major feud -- a fin for a fin, a taillight for a taillight -- till Babowsky tires of the game and takes Tilley's wife Nora. With surpassing ingenuity, the ladykiller seduces Nora (Hershey) over a shopping cart. Pretending to be a recent widower, he feigns a lack of nutritional knowhow vis-a-vis TV dinners. "I'm learning to eat again," he says, batting his eyes.

DeVito no doubt fills his most complete role -- not just some short crank but a troubled hustler who's taking a licking from the IRS, the Home Improvement Commission, and now this guy Babowsky. And Dreyfuss, as the cocky BB, is feeling deep down like Peggy Lee when she sang "Is that all there is?" There's a little of Willie Loman in both men -- and a little Frank Perdue, for local color.

There's a salt-of-the-earth electricity between Dreyfuss and Hershey that contrasts with the crackle between Dreyfuss and DeVito. But the real joy of this work comes in the interchange between the heroes and their siding-company cohorts.

Especially memorable is comedian Jackie Gayle as Tilley's partner Sam, a big-hearted palooka upset with TV's depiction of life on the Ponderosa -- because Lorne Greene is a 50-year-old with three 47-year-old sons and all three of his wives died in childbirth. Tony Award-winner John Mahoney also shines as Babowsky's partner Moe, in one of a slew of moving performances from an exceptional cast that includes Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, Seymour Cassel and Richard Portnow.

Levinson, whose sense of place is unsurpassed, fails again to come up with a satisfying conclusion. Watching "Tin Men" (and "Diner") is a little like watching a movie by Eric Rohmer -- less a story than a character study. "Tin Men" is a tale of transitions and a test of mettle, as sweet as a slow dance, as classy and cumbersome as a Coupe de Ville.

Copyright The Washington Post

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