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‘Wrestling Ernest Hemingway’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 21, 1994

After years of avoiding the demographic group, Hollywood suddenly can't get enough of grumpy old men. Witness Richard Harris and Robert Duvall as an "odd couple" of colorful codgers in "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," an endearing buddy movie for the senior crowd.

Harris, who plays Oscar to Duvall's Felix, is in full strut as a former sea captain, Frank, recently beached in Sweetwater, a faded Florida resort town. Abandoned by his son to a seedy apartment building beside the sea, he finds the transition difficult. Moby Dick would find it easier to get comfortable in a goldfish bowl. Irish whiskey and memories of his lusty past provide but little comfort. It's a friend he needs and it's a friend he gets.

Duvall, whose performance is as controlled as Harris's is overblown, obviously fell head over heels in love with the role of Walter, a fussy Cuban bachelor with a passion for bacon sandwiches, crossword puzzles and ballroom dancing alone in his room. Duvall, a model of old-world courtliness and age-stiffened movements, also manages to sound more like a Havana homeboy than Ricky Ricardo.

Walter's life is a medley of ordered rituals, upon which the has-been old sea dog relentlessly intrudes. Aside from their loneliness, the two men have little in common, but they are increasingly drawn together and soon become inseparable. The friendship grows in richness and complexity as the golden oldies ride a bicycle built for two, go skinny-dipping and share bacon sandwiches at the Sweetwater Cafe.

They influence each other in variously positive, albeit predictable ways -- annoyingly echoed in the swollen and capering musical score. Their lives are touched, to a lesser degree, by the women of Sweetwater. These include the captain's tough but compassionate landlady (Shirley MacLaine); his pleasingly plump but prim lady friend (Piper Laurie); and Duvall's favorite waitress (Sandra Bullock), a pretty young woman who serves his daily sandwiches.

Though their roles are small, supporting ones, the actresses not only enrich the film with their pithy performances, they also expose the heroes to the tragedy of their natures. Neither man, you see, has really had a life. Walter has never tripped the light fantastic with an actual woman -- only fantasies. And Frank, the eternal child, has never grown up.

They do grow, of course, into better versions of themselves -- a process that is profound if not surprising as written by Steve Conrad, whose strength is not his imaginative narrative but his fond characters. Director Randa Haines, whose previous films include "Children of a Lesser God" and "The Doctor," obviously fell in love with them too.

"Wrestling Ernest Hemingway" is rated PG-13 for profanity and some nudity.

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