Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, ...

There?s a nifty joke in Robert Benton?s Twilight, a meandering, elegiac detective yarn that pretends to be about the relationship between a semiretired gumshoe (Paul Newman) and two veteran movie stars (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon) but is actually about the trio of aging stars who play them. At the beginning, Newman?s Harry Ross, a boozing, battle-scarred relic, takes a bullet in the thigh while carrying out a routine assignment (he retrieves a 17-year-old vixen, played by Reese Witherspoon, from a south-of-the-border tryst). Two years later, the rumor circulates that Harry was really shot in the groin?that he?s now a gunslinger without a pistol. Part of the joke is that Harry functions just fine, thank you. What?s even funnier, though, is seeing Paul Newman play a man everyone thinks is no longer virile.

Don?t they have eyes? At 73, Newman doesn?t just look marvelous, with those regal bones and eternally cocksure twinkly stares; he?s a white knight of the spirit?the last of Hollywood?s sex-god aristocrats. Unfortunately, that makes him the wrong actor to bring a crumb-bum like Harry to life. Newman has always known how to play a man who has lost it (The Hustler, The Verdict). What he?s constitutionally incapable of playing is a man who never had it.

The down-and-out Harry doesn?t even live in a place of his own. Instead, he camps out in the mansion of Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Sarandon), a celebrated Hollywood couple who became involved during the ?70s after Catherine?s husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances. (It was declared a suicide, though no body was found.) Harry nudges the case back to life after he learns that Jack, suffering from cancer, is being blackmailed. Benton, who has already made one twilight?of? Paul Newman movie (1994?s overrated Nobody?s Fool), no longer works with the flair and rhythm he showed in pictures like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and his comic detective caper The Late Show (1977). Twilight plods and pokes along mercilessly, and the story, a by-the-numbers Chandler knockoff, is just a rickety skeleton on which the actors can hang their performances. Benton, who underutilizes Sarandon, would have been smart to switch Newman?s and Hackman?s roles. Still, in certain scenes, the two actors grace the screen with a toughened if-only-we-could-go-back melancholy that?s so palpable it?s a little frightening.

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