The Mystery of the Penis: Robert Benton’s “Twilight”

You know a mystery movie’s going to be bad when the most interesting mystery is whether or not a man still has a penis.

It’s a shame really.  Robert Benton’s 1998 Twilight uses a cast that should, in theory, make for an amazing movie.  Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman hold the title roles; Liev Schreiber and Reese Witherspoon even hold lesser roles in the film.  But the actual movie itself is dull, dull, dull.

Newman plays Harry Ross, a washed-up ex-cop, who, two years prior to the main action of the film, had been hired to find actors Jack and Catherine Ames’ brat of a seventeen-year-old, Mel, played by Witherspoon, who has run off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with her boyfriend, Jeff, played by the somewhat shady-looking Shreiber.  In a somewhat sketchy move, Ross patiently sits unnoticed in the hotel room as Mel and Jeff have sex, and promptly forces Mel to pack her things when Jeff steps into the shower.  This, of course, does not sit well with Jeff.  Cue obligatory struggle by poolside.  Girl grabs gun.  Gun goes off.  Bullet ricochets and ostensibly hits Ross in the family jewels.  Whoops.

Flash forward two years.  Mel is still a spoiled little wench, and Ross is now living in the Ames Los Angeles household, acting as the household’s upaid, live-in servant.  Both Catherine and Jack Ames, played by Sarandon and Hackman respectively, have grown to treat Ross as an almost-but-not-quite family member.  I probably don’t even need to say it, but there is tangible sexual tension between Ross and Catherine—but I guess when a good-looking woman parades around naked in front of a man, it’s kind of hard not to feel something.

Though he jokes about Ross having feelings for Catherine, Jack has no real suspicions.  In fact, he regards Ross as one of his closest friends.  So when he asks Ross to deliver a note and a package to a woman named Gloria Lamar, Ross readily obliges.  When Ross asks if he needs a gun—he doesn’t carry one anymore, for obvious reasons—Jack assures him he does not.

As Ross realizes, it’s when your boss tells you that you don’t need a gun that you really do.

Instead of Gloria Lamar, Ross finds a bleeding, dying ex-cop named Lester Ivar, who decides it would be a good idea to use what little strength he has left to chase Ross around with—you guessed it—a gun.

Fortunately for Ross, Ivar eventually kicks it.  Unfortunately for Ross, the cops can place him at the scene of the crime.  However, Ross, being an ex-LA cop, has friends in high places, who know he didn’t do it.  One of these friends is Stockard Channing’s Lieutenant Verna Hollander, the smoldering temptress of the LA police department.  That is, if you consider a woman wearing brown suits with shoulder pads, and sporting a bad dye job “smoldering temptress” material.  But I suppose there’s no accounting for taste; and if you’re in danger of keeling over any second, like Ross and his bordering-on-lecherous old buddy Raymond Hope, played by James Garner, then you take what you can get.

In any case, all of this culminates in the revelation that Catherine had formerly been married to another actor, who supposedly committed suicide twenty-some years previous—but the body had never been found.


After her husband’s convenient death, Catherine immediately married Jack, which made Ivar, the officer working the case, suspicious.  Indeed, Catherine’s swift marriage in conjunction with her husband’s death/disappearance probably should have raised more than just Ivar’s eyebrows.  But that clearly wasn’t the case, and Ivar was left all by his lonesome to puzzle it out for twenty years.

(I’ve got to say, the way the police treat this case reminds me much of the way Winston Churchill treated vermouth when making a martini: Pour three ounces of ice-cold gin into a glass, cast a sidelong glance at the vermouth, and drink your martini.  Case closed.  If you’re looking for a realistic cop movie, this isn’t it.)

What follows is a tiresome hunt for the truth, with a brief interlude of less-than-titillating sexual grappling.  I’ll spare you the boring details, suffice to say it’s pretty damn obvious what happened—it just takes an excruciating hour and a half for Ross to figure out what you probably realized within the first forty-five minutes.

The acting is kind of … meh.  No one really impressed me all that much.  In fact, it seemed as though all the actors were doing was drawing on extant aspects of their own personalities at the time the film was made, and didn’t put any special effort into the creation of the film.  I wish I could say that someone stood out, but then I’d be lying to you.  The actors’ physicality wasn’t too bad, but, with the exception of the way in which Sarandon’s Catherine holds her cigarettes and uses them as subtle sexual advances, nothing really stuck out.  In short, this film could easily have used B-grade actors, and still achieved the same effect: Tedium.

Because the movie takes place in 1997, the costumes are appropriately 90’s-chic, by which I mean oh-God-what-the-hell-are-you-wearing!?  Sarandon’s rather loose clothes were tastefully understated, but certainly weren’t flattering by any means; and much as I desperately wished Channing would stop wearing those wretched suits, she continued to sport the latest in Klingon wear.  The rest of the cast’s outfits blurred into a series of monotonous, varying shades of greys, browns and blues—appropriate, given the overall feel of the movie and its characters: A boring plotline chock-full of washed-up, jaded, old folks.

(Oh, and for the record:
He’s got a penis.)


Film Bitch


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