For some artists, going home is a tonic; it reconnects them, inspires them and grounds their work. But for Texas-born director Robert Benton, the journey home has been a dead end -- a waste of psychic bus fare.
For Benton, cruising old haunts seems to have produced the opposite of the desired effect; it's made his work appear more flyaway, less rooted, than ever. His previous film, "Places in the Heart," which was meant to be deeply personal, played like a third-person autobiography, a generic memoir.
His newest picture, "Nadine," isn't a thumb through back pages. But it's got a Texas backdrop (Austin, 1954) and an intimate scale -- everything you'd expect from a small, personal film. Except that there's no personality in it.
"Nadine" is Benton's most perishable, least substantial work. The picture is a slender caper film about a love-daft blond named Nadine (Kim Basinger) and her no-'count ex-husband-to-be (Jeff Bridges), who get all tangled up in a real estate scam involving a redneck Moriarty named Buford Pope (Rip Torn), a murdered photographer and a folio of purloined surveyor's maps. (Or are they "art studies" of a buck-naked Nadine?)
Benton, who wrote the screenplay, doesn't seem to have invested much in his couple's story -- as a mystery-adventure it doesn't amount to much -- and the lack of any substance in the plot partly accounts for the picture's flimsiness. But if Benton's approach were looser, jazzier -- if he just weren't so darn nice -- it might not matter as much.
Benton makes movies for grown-ups. He stays away from the big, noisy, blockbuster subjects, and he's not a hired gun. When he makes a movie, more often than not it's a movie he's written, a movie he's wanted to make.
So why are his recent pictures so skimpy-souled and anemic? In "Bonnie and Clyde" (which he wrote with partner David Newman) and "The Late Show," he was capable of exploding comic firecrackers in your face. But his idea of mature, adult entertainment has become too civilized, too tame; they're back-yard, drinks-on-the-patio affairs. Middle-aged torpor seems to have set in.
In "Nadine," Benton has turned himself into the Mantovani of slapstick. He's an above-average director of actors, but even when he is skillful, as in some of the slapstick bits here, he never opens the throttle and blows out the carbon. He's always checking himself, holding something back.
Benton may see this sort of restraint as a sign of taste. Audiences certainly seemed to in 1979 when he came out with "Kramer vs. Kramer." But even if you didn't find his gentleman melodramatist's approach particularly revealing (or honest), at least there was a point to the film; it had something to get off its chest.
"Nadine" plays more like an exercise, a larky diversion. The movie is mounted on coasters; it's friction free. There's nothing wrong with a shallow throwaway. But a polished, refined throwaway? For so unassuming a tale, the movie is too fussed over. (When the thugs in a film have windbreakers coordinated to the color of the leading lady's eyes, it's fair to say it's overproduced.)
For all this, the movie is agreeable enough and, along the way, there are choice bits that draw you in, like Jeff Bridges' loping, clodhopper stride and the way he takes stairs, two at a time, or Glenne Headly's dippy little song in the pickup. (Headly's character, Renee Lomax, may not know a quark from a lightning bug but "she's smart enough to work in accounts receivable.")
The emotional center of the movie, though, belongs to Basinger's Nadine. A corn-pone variation on marital comedies like "The Awful Truth" and "His Girl Friday," the movie is about how Nadine and Vern get themselves in one mess after another (though not entirely consciously), just so they don't have to give each other up. Even though she hasn't even signed the papers to make it official, their divorce is already a much bigger failure than their marriage was. Watching the amiable Vern through Nadine's eyes, you can see why she can't get over him, and at the same time, why he drives her crazy. Vern is a charmer, but of a very specific type. He's the seemingly harmless, nearly irresistible sort of woman trap who, even in middle age, looks as though he hasn't developed much past his teens.
There's a likable chemistry, a comfy rhythm, between the two stars, and, as they're complimenting each other during their scene on the couch ("You look good. I mean, you look like you been eating good"), you can believe that they're inextricably hung up on each other. And Basinger, in particular, does a marvelous job of conveying the jumble of longing and exasperation that Nadine feels for Vern.
As Nadine, Basinger, who may be much more of an actress than her films so far would indicate, certainly gives her all, and clearly Benton delights in putting this big blond in motion. And in a different context, her performance might have been a great one, but stuck with what Benton's given her, she can't blossom.
The main problem with both actors is that, even though their work is solid -- they're on top of the vernacular, and the accents sound authentic enough -- you can't believe for a second that they are the people they're playing. Neither performer is trying for realism (the same goes for Rip Torn, who's been lugging around his deeply weird, Texas-sleaze act like a carpetbag from movie to movie). What Benton is going for is the stylization of drawing-room comedy, but in the American grain -- a hayseed farce. And failed farce -- which is what this is -- can be disorienting. As a result, the actors' choices may simply seem arch and unconvincing. At best, they come across as movie-star tourists play-acting country.
Maybe this is because Benton doesn't allow much genuine Texas atmosphere into the picture. This is where Benton's style, his inability to give himself over to his subjects, is most intrusive. Walking out of "Nadine," you wish that he had attempted something more -- that he had pushed himself. I'm not suggesting that he become a vulgarian or limit himself to exploring deep-dish, soul-searching themes; just that he let a little earthiness and spontaneity into his films. In "Nadine," he keeps running off to wash up, when what he needs is to get a little honest dirt on his hands.
Nadine, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains no offensive material.