Wrestling Ernest Hemingway

1993, Movie, PG-13, 122 mins

Review

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WRESTLING ERNEST HEMINGWAY is a predictable drama about the friendship between two elderly men that thankfully steers clear of trite sentimentalism.

The small Florida town of Sweetwater is home to both Frank (Richard Harris), a rambunctious former sea-captain, and Walt (Robert Duvall), a shy Cuban expatriate and retired barber who never married. One of the free-spirited Frank's favorite occupations is nude calisthenics--much to the consternation of his tough-as-nails landlady, Helen (Shirley MacLaine). The four-times-divorced Frank spends his days reading Hemingway in the local bookstore (the film's title comes from his possibly apocryphal tale of having wrestled the author in the Caribbean in 1938); going to double features in the local movie house; and drinking heavily. After his son fails to visit him on his birthday, Frank goes on a drinking binge and winds up in a local park where he meets Walt, sitting on a park bench doing a crossword puzzle and eating a bacon sandwich. Walt spends most of his time in a local luncheonette talking with Elaine (Sandra Bullock), the young waitress who serves him up the sandwiches--two a day--with a good-humored warning about their fat content. The two seventysomething men strike up an unlikely friendship that encompasses, among other things, riding a tandem bicycle; taking in little league games; and pursuing the objects of their amorous attentions--Helen for Frank, Elaine for Walt. Walt is disappointed in his quest when Elaine leaves town to get married; and though Frank finally wins over Helen, he does not live to enjoy a relationship with her.

Incredibly, WRESTLING ERNEST HEMINGWAY was written by 23-year-old Steve Conrad, who reassures us in the film's press materials that "I had no age group in mind. I just wanted to show how your friends touch you, how you even become more like them if you love them. Friends fill each other's needs." Mr. Conrad would have been better advised to stick to a generation of people that he knows about, since the weakest part of his script is its unrealistic treatment of aging. Despite an obligatory reference to prostate problems, and a scene in which Frank is unable to physically consummate his feelings toward Helen, neither of the two men convincingly portray a sense of being 65 or older. One possible benefit of this, however, is the fun that Harris and Duvall have with the roles, frolicking around like teenagers and delivering Conrad's colorful dialogue with gusto. Harris looks remarkably fit and athletic, while Duvall is heavily disguised by a wig, glasses, and a thick accent.

WRESTLING offers little in the way of narrative drive or plot conflict, and what does happen is far from surprising. MacLaine and Piper Laurie are more or less wasted in supporting roles, and pretty Sandra Bullock is given almost nothing to do. On the other hand, the film makes particularly picturesque use of its southern Florida setting, and director Randa Haines employs a nicely understated style, rather than milking the script for its considerable sentimental potential. (Nudity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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