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'Nuts' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1987

Crazies, call girls and courtroom dramas each make for showy cinema. Put them all together -- as Barbra Streisand has in "Nuts" -- and score an actor's hat trick in a bravissimo performance. She doesn't sing so much as a grace note, but she belts out a show stopper as a mentally ill prostitute fighting to prove her sanity.

She is so dazzling, in fact, that she blinds us to the pat psychology of the facile script adapted from Tom Topor's 1980 off-Broadway play -- 10 years' worth of therapy packed into a gripping two-hour showcase. There's heat in the moment, but there's nothing to chew on afterward.

Though it's mostly set in an intimidating courtroom, "Nuts" is more a mystery of the mind than a legal puzzle. It's the proverbial psychodrama between patient and shrink, only here the attorney does the analyzing. Richard Dreyfuss plays this cross between Perry Mason and Sigmund Freud -- Aaron Levinsky, court-appointed to defend Claudia Draper, a call girl who murdered a client. The obstreperous Claudia wishes to be tried for her crime, but the court is about to declare her mentally incompetent to stand trial. Judge Murdoch, played with just and gentle brilliance by James Whitmore, surely deserves that vacant seat on the Supreme Court. He is that rare movie justice, a man of Solomonic wisdom who belongs on the bench. Firm father figure that he is, Murdoch wonders how this bright, upper-class girl came to this. Her mother and stepfather (Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden) appear to be model parents, and Claudia the pampered child gone inexplicably mad. Levinsky, the mind sleuth, probes for solutions.

Backed by an illustrious cast, Streisand and Dreyfuss team for the first time, but they work together like practiced pairs skaters. He does the lifts and she rises to applause. And that's not unusual for the controlling Streisand, who typically takes the reins on all her projects. This time, she produced and wrote the music, but thankfully she didn't direct as she did in "Yentl," which played like a cross-dressed "Funny Girl"; whether it's Streisand or Sylvester Stallone, omnipotence seldom works on a movie set.

"Nuts" ends like a Broadway musical, but otherwise it's a consistent character study, paced like a good thriller. Martin Ritt, who took the directing job after "On Golden Pond's" Mark Rydell bailed out, is clearly an actor's director with a soft spot for downtrodden heroines. He directed Sally Field's Oscar-winning performance in "Norma Rae," and Patricia Neal's in "Hud." He may have done it again for Streisand, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the loud and lascivious call girl.

It's Streisand's second hooker role, a classy variation on the semiliterate prostitute of "The Owl and the Pussycat," and her second brush with psychoanalysis. In "On a Clear Day ..." she could see forever, but she had a tendency to stare into space and cross her eyes. That's gone, along with the kittenishness. Here she is carnal, itchy, even beguiling with her busted nose. She corners a flunky of a psychiatrist who has declared her insane. She is St. Joan of the Nuts, chewing up his authority with the truth he doesn't want to hear. "You're stuck in the crummiest joint in town," she sneers.

Eli Wallach is deliciously pedantic as the psychiatrist and, along with Whitmore, a standout even amid this fine supporting cast. Stapleton is nice as the ineffectual mother, with Malden easily overcoming his don't-leave-home-without-'em image as Claudia's stepfather. Leslie Nielsen is every prostitute's nightmare as the john who demands and gets more than he paid for, and Robert Webber successfully plays against type as the prosecuting attorney.

Dreyfuss gives his third impressive performance this year as a world-weary, middle-aged hero in crisis. In "Tin Men," "Stakeout" and "Nuts," he's burned out, but finds his way up from midlife ennui. He's become the archetype of the new middle-aged man, 40 something, attractive and searching for rejuvenation. Levinsky has never really made it big, knows he never will, has no illusions, but still hopes to ring more juice out of the job.

In the opening scenes, we are engulfed in Levinsky's world, as director of photography Andrzej Bartkowiak takes us into the crowded, busy courtroom. The camera work opens up the play, without destroying its stagy intimacy. Bartkowiak, whose credits include "The Verdict" and "Prizzi's Honor," makes "Nuts" look as though it had been painted by a Dutch master, somber and somehow golden.

But unhappily, "Nuts" is less than the sum of its illustrious parts. Despite all its achievements, it's ultimately hollow inside, like a cake at a bachelor party. The filmmakers never quite succeed in their larger purpose: pitting inner truths against outward appearances to force us to decide who is and is not nuts. It wants to be a movie with a message, but in the end it's just a melodrama.

"Nuts" is rated R for profanity and adult situations.

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