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‘Wrestling Ernest Hemingway’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 21, 1994

If you thought Jack Palance doing one-handed push-ups at the Oscars tested your sensibilities, try the opening shot of "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," in which white-haired Richard Harris heaves his aging, sinewy hulk up and down, up and down.

At least Palance had his clothes on.

Harris, a cantankerous odd bird in real life, needs no urging to barge into the shameless forefront of this odd-couple story. A retired sea captain living hand-to-mouth in Miami, he's an ornery, booze-infused personality full of unprovable tall tales. The stories, most of them sexual conquests, include Harris's assertion that he beat Mr. Hemingway in a wrestling bout in 1938.

Dying of heat and loneliness in his unairconditioned apartment, Harris clings to the hope that his son will soon be coming to take him to a nearby Fourth of July fireworks display.

He is soon to meet Robert Duvall, an equally lonely Cuban immigrant who shows up daily at a restaurant where waitress Sandra Bullock works. Duvall's ritual never wavers. He orders two bacon sandwiches, one for breakfast, the other for lunch in the park, and he chats hopefully with Bullock. It's clear the old fella is working up the gall to ask her out. It's equally clear she likes him as a friend only.

Two men, two sets of delusions and one gushy movie score. There's little in the way of surprise here. Most of the scenes consist of polar showcasing between the extroverted Harris and the reserved, vaguely disapproving Duvall. In acting terms, there's no contest. Harris is a one-note bore, as he rubs Duvall the wrong way, then tries to woo local ladies Shirley MacLaine (his jaded landlady) and Piper Laurie (an eccentric moviegoer who may or may not be available).

Duvall's performance quietly blows his wizened rival out of the water. Every acting moment is measured: the way he winces over his crossword puzzles; the fussy manner in which he packs and unpacks that lunch time sandwich; his amusing, semi-mute falsetto of a laugh; and a workmanlike Cuban accent. His performance is an entertaining bag of subtle theatrics.

However, there's little that Duvall, or anyone, can do to screen out the sun-stroked poignance worked up by director Randa Haines, screenwriter Steve Conrad and composer Michael Convertino. This movie is so loaded down with calendar-poster sentiments, you may find yourself wanting to wrestle the filmmakers.

The cringe-inducing nadir comes at that much foreshadowed fireworks display, to which Harris and Duvall journey on a tandem bicycle. It takes two partners to ride tandem, you know. In the movie's best idea of a triumphant, male-bonding scene, Harris and Duvall relieve themselves into the sea ("feeding the fish," Harris calls it), as the night sky explodes with rockets. It's the kind of moment you wish the filmmakers had zipped up and kept to themselves.

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