A poignant tale of intimate friendship between two elderly, eccentric men, “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” serves mostly as a showcase for its two stars, Robert Duvall and Richard Harris. Aimed at the “Cocoon”/”Fried Green Tomatoes”/”Used People” audience, Randa Haines’ drama may achieve moderate success, provided a shrewd marketing campaign hits its older target audience.
Set in a small Florida town, this bittersweet, often lyrical story might well have been titled “The Odd Couple,” for it’s based on the theory that opposites attract.
Duvall, a retired Cuban barber, and Harris, a flamboyant ex-sea captain, accidentally meet in a public park in what turns out to be a fateful encounter that will forever change their lives. The two men are dissimilar, even incongruous, in almost every respect, from their nationalities to their professions, personalities and philosophies of life. But they share two characteristics that can — and do — overcome any other disparities: aging and loneliness.
Scripter Steve Conrad’s strategy is to establish the idiosyncratic lifestyle of each man alone, then to cross their paths with a series of interactions set mostly in a park or a local restaurant, which Duvall frequents daily for his favorite bacon sandwich.
Shy, dignified and gentlemanly, Duvall leads a quiet, orderly life marked by the absence of women — or friends. He’s secretly enamored of a much younger waitress (Sandra Bullock).
In contrast, the often-married Harris is still an amorous daredevil, who tries to make it with his motel manager (Shirley MacLaine) and in a local movie house with a proudly reticent woman (Piper Laurie) who rejects him time after time. Harris exhaustingly relishes telling the story of how as a youngster he wrestled macho writer Ernest Hemingway — hence the title.
Script has a few inspired scenes and some poignant dialogue, but not enough to conceal the clanky machinery of the schematic plot, which contains too clearly defined turning points of the friendship between the men.
In one of the film’s highlights, Duvall lets down his guard, takes off his clothes and swims naked, following his jubilant mentor.
In turn, Harris learns kindness, gentleness and compassion from Duvall. Well-intentioned story, which becomes too sappy and message-laden, overstresses the invigorating dimensions of friendship among the elderly.
“Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” bears a strong thematic resemblance to Haines’ previous films, “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Doctor,” in which she also explored complex relationships between individuals with different backgrounds, though the novelty here is that both characters are of the same sex.
Haines’ direction is proficient, but also too expansive and leisurely; at 122 minutes, the film would have benefited from at least 15 minutes of tightening. As in her previous work, however, Haines shows great facility with the actors, which are the picture’s main asset.
Though Duvall gets top billing, pic belongs to Harris, who turns his role into an overloaded tour de force. Beginning with a nude scene, which he does in an unself-conscious manner, Harris throws himself into every situation with too much gusto and bravura.
Wearing a wig and heavy makeup, and sporting a thick Cuban accent, Duvall renders a quieter, more effective performance, though ultimately his understated work also comes across as excessive. Duvall’s graceful dancing is one of several touching, euphoric moments, reminiscent of Al Pacino’s in “Scent of a Woman.”
Pic clearly favors the men, with the three women playing sketchy roles that serve primarily as plot functions. Still, MacLaine as the lonely but sensitive motel manager, Laurie as the coquettishly proud lady and Bullock as the sweet waitress acquit themselves with modest, unassuming performances.
Tech credits are impressive, particularly lenser Lajos Koltai’s sun-drenched palette that captures Florida’s unique landscape and contributes to the film’s occasional poetic moments.