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‘Jacknife’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1989

Kathy Baker is so spectacularly natural in "Jacknife," she makes her partner Robert De Niro look like just the great actor he is.

As a diamond-in-the-rough schoolteacher whose love life is being choked by her war-traumatized brother Ed Harris, she's so disarmingly assured, it's seductive.

When De Niro, an old war buddy, comes to purge Harris' demons and falls for her, you understand why. In this world of hurting hearts and minds, they come together with an unaffected momentum, speaking in honest, clumsy utterances rather than screwball Ping-Pong talk. "Do your girlfriends come over and cook for you?" she asks, probing De Niro at their first dinner date. "Is that, like, a real question, or are you just jerking my chain?" asks De Niro.

He's "Jacknife," an amiable garage mechanic (so named for once crashing a truck) who's come to save Harris from his past. Baker, who lives with her brother, is already carrying most of the load and could use the company. But with Harris' stormy intrusions, their romance doesn't bud so much as grow in wayside patches.

Director David Jones infuses "Jacknife" with a homespun, "small-movie" preciousness -- the characters seem in no hurry to get anywhere. But the longer they take, the better: Their behavior becomes ultimately more important than the made-for-TV scenario they have to live in. Stephen Metcalfe, adapting his own play "Strange Snow," gives Harris a coming-to-terms that has more to do with the movies than real therapy.

But where "Jacknife" is patronizing, it's also openhandedly compassionate; where it falls into the trite, Baker, De Niro and Harris (doing what he can with a one-note role) pick it up and dust it off.

The main event is the Baker-De Niro affair. It's blatant "movie-love" (impossibly handsome, dashing, exciting performers from Hollywood acting like Us), but still warms you with its appealing glow.

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