No stars (Worthless)

Directed and written by Robert Benton

With Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, and Rip Torn.

In 15 years and six films, writer-director Robert Benton has steadily descended from the promising heights of Bad Company into the barren abyss of his new comedy-mystery, Nadine.

In the early 50s, Benton arrived in New York from his native Texas and quickly proved his cleverness as an illustrator and consulting editor at Esquire during one of that magazine’s fertile periods, and as coauthor, with Harvey Schmidt, of The In & Out Book and The Worry Book. In the early 60s, he and Esquire cohort David Newman wrote the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, an offbeat project that knocked around Hollywood until it was successfully filmed by Arthur Penn in 1966. After two flop writing collaborations with Newman–the Broadway musical Superman, and the Joseph Mankiewicz movie There Was a Crooked Man–Benton got the opportunity in 1972 to direct his first feature, Bad Company.

Blessed with an ingenious, pointedly satirical Benton-Newman screenplay, Bad Company seemed to announce the arrival of a major filmmaker. Jeff Bridges and the late Barry Brown played two young drifters struggling to survive in the western badlands during the Civil War. Cunningly, Benton subverted western myth by infusing it with the moral dissolution of the Vietnam era. Instead of heroes on white horses and villains with black mustaches, Benton’s west was populated by draft dodgers, hustlers, juvenile delinquents, and world-weary mobsters. I happened to catch a television revival during the last days of Oliver North’s Iranscam testimony and was astonished to discover how well the film holds up, how precisely it understands the distance between American ideals and practices, between ends and means.

Despite favorable critical notices, Bad Company failed to draw audiences, and so Benton tried to recoup with The Late Show (1977), a pleasant if comparatively toothless comic film noir, featuring strong performances by Lily Tomlin and Art Carney. Again, the picture pleased critics but did not find an audience, a commercial failure that, in retrospect, signaled a turning point in Benton’s career. He retreated to collaborating, with Newman, Newman’s wife, Leslie, and Mario Puzo, on the screenplay for the first Superman picture. Discovering how well schlock sells, he’s never since averted his eyes from the box office.

In 1979, he wrote and directed the yuppie weepie Kramer vs. Kramer, a shamelessly synthetic creation that tearjerked five Oscars, including ones for best picture and best direction. Still of the Night followed, a suspenseless Hitchcock pastiche featuring an embalmed Meryl Streep performance. Three years ago, Benton returned to his native Texas for the nauseatingly pious Places in the Heart, with Sally Field’s Oscar-winning Norman Rockwell performance which I really, really didn’t like.

Benton’s work had declined from satire to sitcom to soap opera to slasher to sentimentality and, just when one felt sure he couldn’t sink any lower, along comes Nadine. In the abstract, it sounds like a tolerable picture, a lighthearted comic chase starring two of contemporary Hollywood’s most attractive stars–Bridges and Kim Basinger. But Benton’s screenplay and direction are so pedestrian, only the indefatigable charm of his players makes the film’s lugubrious 82 minutes endurable.

The setting is Austin, Texas, 1954. Nadine Hightower (Basinger), a beautician separated from her “two-bit loser” husband Vern (Bridges), goes to a sleazy photographer’s studio to retrieve some “art studies” she posed for in a naive moment. During her visit, the photographer is stabbed, and she runs away in fright, clutching confidential maps of a projected state highway system. The murderer wants those plans and intends to get them from Nadine. With Vern’s help, the bad guys, headed by Rip Torn playing yet another crooked, southern-fried entrepreneur, are defeated and, at the fade-out, the reunited couple are on their way to easy street.

With sprightly dialogue and lively action sequences, it’s just possible that this wheezy TV-movie plot could have squeaked by. But Benton’s jokes and story-line twists are so crudely telegraphed and executed that the audience is always about 15 minutes ahead of the movie. Instead of tending to the task of putting some energy and humor onscreen, Benton diddles with 50s atmospherics–period furnishings, hairdos, dresses, and cars. As in Places in the Heart, everyone speaks in Hollywood-Texan, a singular patois marked by howling vowel sounds, difficulty with subject-verb agreement, and an avoidance of final “g”s. Although Texas is presumably a wealthy state, Benton sets his film exclusively in derelict houses, crummy trailers, and salvage yards. Nestor Almendros, the director’s overrated cinematographer, veils all this shabbiness in shadowy beige light, presumably to let us know what we’re watching is History. I saw Nadine at a sneak preview in a suburb that you wouldn’t think of as a hotbed of film culture, but the audience wasn’t buying it. During the lame climactic chase, the man sitting behind me said to his companion, “This is some of the worst direction I’ve ever seen.”

Even Benton’s plodding direction can’t entirely dim Bridges’s spark, and though he has hardly anything to work with here, he remains amiable and spontaneous. Basinger’s disturbing beauty–wounded eyes and pouty lips–and earnestness also deserve a more sympathetic showcase than this. These appealing performers share a long love scene–apparently designed as an acting set piece, since Benton shoots it in close-up with a motionless camera–but the writing is so banal the performers are unable to work up any rhythm or feeling. Apart from Torn’s familiar but still amusing sleazeball routine, none of the players is permitted to make an impression. (Gwen Verdon is unrecognizable in her two-scene appearance as Nadine’s confidante.)

Nadine is cluttered with ill-concealed commercial plugs. Early on, there’s an ostentatious line of dialogue about buying beer at 7-Eleven; no doubt the Southland Corporation paid handsomely for the mention. Even worse are the blatant plugs for Coca-Cola, a corporation that has a financial interest in Tri-Star Pictures, the company that produced Nadine.

In Places in the Heart, Benton’s characters kept interrupting the story to offer each other Cokes, and Coke bottle silhouettes were blatantly inserted into the foreground of a dance sequence. This time the huckstering is even more disgraceful. When Basinger, armed with a shotgun and frightened out of her wits, checks the security of her bungalow, she makes an absurd short stop at the refrigerator, grabs a Coke, and brandishes it throughout the sequence. In the final police-station scene, Bridges and Basinger just happen by a Coke machine, spring for two cold ones, and deliver several pages of dialogue while chugging that rust-removing potion.

At this point in his career, Benton seems much more interested in merchandising than filmmaking. If only he had a more dynamic visual style, he could cross over to directing TV spots. But since his dim imagination and dead eye are not up to that exacting task, I suggest he might be most fruitfully employed drawing Cokes at some concession stand.