TWICE IN A LIFETIME" is a bittersweet story of a blue-collar break-up told with soapy sentiment at a jittery pace. Oscar-winners Ellen Burstyn and Gene Hackman costar as a troubled couple, with the under-appreciated Ann-Margret as the other woman. The performances are appealing, but Bud Yorkin of "All in the Family" directs as if everyone were going to get bored and run out for popcorn at the next commercial break.
Yorkin's TV techniques aside, this remains a genuine, enjoyable, teary-eyed tale of D-I-V-O-R-C-E set in a Seattle steel mill suburb full of disgruntled working stiffs and their self-effacing wives.
Hackman, a mill worker in a dead-end job and a stale-bread marriage, is having his 50th birthday and all attendant crises. He looks vaguely unhappy as he sits down to a celebratory supper of fried chicken, potato salad and othe working-class staple starches. It's a hearty, noisy scene, full of family chatter and plenty of catsup to pass around.
Burstyn, weary and submissive as his repressed wife, urges him to go out with the boys for beer. She'll just stay home with the kids and watch "All in the Family." Producer-director Yorkin can't resist saluting himself with some old Archie Bunker footage. It only underscores the readily apparent made-for-TV feel and the TV-thin characterizations. Yorkin, either fearful or impatient, doesn't take the time to let the scenes build or the performers emote.
Hackman and Burstyn see each other only in passing -- he works the night shift at the mill, and she works days sweeping up hair at a beauty parlor, where the girls talk over last night's winners on "The Price Is Right." It's a disheartening, exhausting situation, but realistically conveyed.
Ann-Margret, prettily polite as a recently widowed barmaid, takes up with Hackman on the night of his birthday. It's a low-key affair, inoffensive and cuddly, so we can't possibly get mad at either of these two dear, sexually deprived lovesters. Why she is attracted to him is the mystery. "I have been man-proof for a long time," she says, staring into his hooded eyes. Could it be his billed cap?
Hackman seems a bland choice as a leading man -- I'd rather see Clint Eastwood try a mid-life love affair. But he is the perfect guilt-ridden, errant husband, staring morosely into his fried foods. His wife finally learns of the affair from the busybody owner of the beauty shop, and is at first heartbroken. But eventually she gets better and dyes her hair blond. Soon she's discussing the boys at Seattle's version of Chippendales instead of the prizes on "The Price Is Right." See, blonds do have more fun.
It is a heartening metamorphosis, but the rest of the family -- Ally Sheedy in an endearing role as the 17-year-old daughter and Amy Madigan in an aggressive performance as the older, married sister -- have a tougher time dealing with the break-up, which provides the impetus for needed changes on all fronts. Madigan's freeloading husband gets a job pumping gas, and Sheehy takes control of her own life.
"Sometimes pain needs causing to shake everybody up," says Ann-Margret in one of the tidy homilies that are the stickum of the Colin Welland script, which was originally set in an English coal-mining community, but rewritten very realistically in American commonplace terms.
TWICE IN A LIFETIME (R) -- At area theaters.