With its mature themes, rueful humor, sleek look and cast of gracefully aging stars, "Twilight" is a harbinger of spring as welcome as the first robin, announcing that movie theaters are once again safe for grown-ups. At least until Memorial Day.
It would be dishonest to describe "Twilight" in superlative terms. It's not a work of genius or great depth or devastating style or bravura performances. It's just a modest, quietly good contemporary film noir that evokes the middling thrillers of the 1940s, even as it meditates on the narcissism and selfishness of modern-day Los Angeles.
Paul Newman plays Harry Ross, a former cop, private detective and alcoholic who lives above the garage of Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon), a golden couple -- both famous actors -- who live in deco luxury somewhere in Hollywood's gilded precincts.
The Ameses surround themselves with reminders of how happy they are, but all is not perfect in their world, as Harry discovers when Jack asks him to run a mysterious errand. The errand goes awry, and soon Harry is embroiled in a decades-old murder mystery that will shake his friendship with the Ameses, especially the alluring, ruthless Catherine.
There's something comforting about "Twilight," which Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") directed with characteristic assurance and lack of pretension. It has a soft, careworn quality that sets it apart from the hyperbolic fare that too often tries to pass for entertainment.
"Twilight" engrosses, not with fancy plot contortions or a surfeit of visual style or nostalgia (all of which helped sell the otherwise unremarkable "L.A. Confidential"), but with its mood, its words and the meanings underneath their surfaces.
To quote from "Twilight" would be to reduce its subtleties to boilerplate. But Benton and screenwriter Richard Russo surround the film's cliched elements (an uncompelling mystery, a reliance on guns and blood, a non-sequitur comic relief played by Giancarlo Esposito) with themes of surprising resonance.
The film's title doesn't just refer to the moral gloaming that Harry lives in. It refers to the murky dynamics of friendship with the rich and beautiful; the mysterious, hermetic nature of great love affairs; the resentment that always lies just underneath adoration. (Elmer Bernstein's jazz score nicely amplifies the wistful feeling.)
"Twilight" owes most of its appeal to its thoroughbred cast. Newman plays Harry like his old character, Harper, only without the petulance. He's still devastating, a sand-colored mustache masking the now-thin lips, but his looks no longer detract: Newman can finally just act, with no worries about the face overtaking the talent.
Sarandon plays Catherine with an unfussy glamour -- and sharp vocal cadences -- that recall Myrna Loy. Stockard Channing, James Garner and Liev Schreiber make up the dependable supporting team. (Hackman is so good, it goes without saying. But it should be said, nonetheless. He's good, again.)
More than film noir, more than commentary on the false values of money and fame, "Twilight" succeeds most as a self-referential wink in the vein of "The First Wives Club." "Twilight" is quieter, more sophisticated, but it is just as defiant in its meta-message that a youth-obsessed popular culture writes off its elders at its own peril.
As pure entertainment, "Twilight" is fair to middling; as anti-ageist polemic, it's brilliant.
Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman
Directed by Robert Benton
Rated R (violence and some sexuality)
Released by Paramount Pictures
Sun Score: ***
Pub Date: 3/06/98