A review of the movie "Partners" in Thursday's editions incorrectly identified John Hurt as the title figure in the television series "I, Claudius." That part was played by Derek Jacobi.
In "Partners," Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt are an odd couple of police investigators assigned to set up housekeeping as gays to solve the murder of a male model.
O'Neal, as the determinedly heterosexual Detective Sgt. Benson, is at first appalled; cruising about in a lavender Volkswagen Beetle is not his idea of work on the homicide squad. He thinks of himself in terms of brio, not brie. His new partner, a preternaturally passive clerical officer named Fred Kerwin, seems merely embarrassed by the idea. Lavender is fine with him, but he has long ago learned not to go where he isn't wanted.
Nevertheless, the department is taking heat because of the unsolved murder, and Chief Wilkens has been accused of "sexism"--a charge that we are to believe galvanizes him into action. He tells the two reluctant roommates, "You guys are going to do this because you are cops!"
The odd-couple premise is a risky one, but after the trail blazed by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, not an impossible one. The tension between the two opposites--as they live as a couple, track a killer through an exotic world of headbands and tight dungarees and, inevitably, come to understand each other better--might be considerable. It might be funny and dramatic and even touching.
The risk, of course, is that farce could gain the upper hand, the homosexual gags slip out of control, audience sympathies become confused, the tension evaporate into demeaning bathos and funny-ha-ha turn to funny-yech.
In this case, the risk has not only outweighed the gains, but squashed "Partners" flat.
Ryan O'Neal, as it happens, seems to have temporarily played out his macho hand. Last seen in an Angora sweater in "So Fine," he is beginning to look rather too much at home in tank shirts and tight pants to sustain the plot point at hand: Namely, that he is a man's man trapped in no-man's land.
John Hurt, however, is a piece of obviousness from the first moment he flows timidly on the screen. Startlingly affecting as Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant," brilliant as the stammering historian of "I, Claudius" and superb as the unfortunate subject of "The Elephant Man," he has here been told or permitted merely to mince and cook breakfast, and the result is a character of soggy cardboard whose only purpose seems to be to cue such O'Neal lines as, "I must have the only partner on the force who breaks out crying."
As Chief Wilkins, we have Kenneth McMillen, whose contributions to "True Confessions" and "Ragtime" were masterful portraits of crackpot vulgarity. Here he scratches himself only once, and his sexist wisecracks are apparently supposed to be somewhat ironic. Casting the ebullient McMillen against type might have been grand; letting him rip would have been a sure thing. Here he is neither.
As for women, "Partners" has one--Robyn Douglass as Jill, a photographer who threatens to break up the housekeeping policemen. She is sexy and likable. But ah, that will not do: And to prove it will not do, the mean-spirited little plot self-destructs, taking her and a random gravelly voiced villain with it.
Director James Burrows, making his first film after 150 television shows, has managed to create an effect opposite that of overlapping dialogue: He provides a slight pause between lines, as in amateur theatricals. In fact, the rhythm of the entire film is off.