From its opening scene of Richard Harris doing pushups in the nude, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway practically dares you to write it off as one of those feisty-but-lovable-old-folks-raging-at-the-dying-of-the-light movies. The Florida setting (in a fictional beach town called Sweetwater which bears as much resemblance to the municipality in West Dade as Cedar Key does to Hialeah) will no doubt elicit comparisons to Cocoon. Like that saccharine Ron Howard production, most of the players here are familiar stereotypes. Harris's Francis Joyce, for example, is a long-winded, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Irishman. In the Hollywood lexicon, is there any other kind?
But there's something else in that opening scene, too, something that prevents you from giving up on the film completely. Beneath the familiar blustery exterior there's a poignant grace in Harris's delivery and a measured hitch in his gawky, crazed-stork step. The man called Horse has learned when to trot, when to canter, and when to gallop, and the result is a textured performance that, especially in the early going, touches rather than crushes the viewer. While no one's going to label Harris's acting restrained in this lifetime, in this film it's at least controlled, and he's as charismatic as ever. His performance dovetails harmoniously with that of his costar Robert Duvall's, who plays his friend Walt, the two old pros overcoming the cliched characterizations through the sheer power of their craft. Thanks to them Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, if not exactly a good film, is at least a watchable one.
Francis Joyce (he answers to every possible variation: Frank, Francis, Joyce) is a retired sea captain whose past was a lot more colorful -- at least to hear him tell it -- than his present. And tell it he does. Frank practically lives in the past, constantly digressing into tales of earlier derring-do. Of course, you can't really blame him. Numerous wives have left him, his son's an inconsiderate schmuck who cancels a birthday trip with the old man at the last minute, he lives alone in a tiny apartment without air conditioning, the old maid he's been hitting on during matinees at the movie theater won't give him the time of day, and, to add insult to injury, even if he could seduce her, Frank's been having problems with his "cucumber." The old days must have been better than this.
"We used to say, 'A sailor needs a straight back, strong legs, and a stiff pecker,'" Frank recalls wistfully. "My back is still straight and my legs are still strong."
But Frank isn't wistful all that often. He's one of those loud guys Atalks loud, dresses loud. Tells anyone who will listen about the time he once wrestled Hemingway in a bar when both men were young bucks. Walt, whom Frank befriends one day in the park, is his opposite number A fastidious, quiet, shy, self-absorbed. Likes to sit on the same bench every day working crossword puzzles and eating grilled cheese sandwiches prepared by Elaine, a waitress at the Sweetwater Snack Shop, who Walt has a crush on. Walt's wardrobe runs toward crisply pressed guayaberas, double-knit slacks, and shiny shoes. Frank favors Hawaiian print shirts (on those rare occasions when he wears a shirt), baggy shorts, and shoes or open-toed sandals with dark socks.
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Walt's a retired barber who left Cuba to avoid getting married, settled in the U.S., and spent so much time learning English and managing his own barber shop that one day he woke up and, "all of a sudden, I'm an old man." The rest is predictable: Frank and Walt alternately bicker and bond and help each other escape loneliness.
It would all be run-of-the-mill mush were it not for the presence of Harris and Duvall. (Shirley MacLaine is fine as Frank's landlady and brief romantic interest, but the part is poorly written and feels like an afterthought.) It's the best work Harris has done in a long time, his brilliant bit part in Unforgiven notwithstanding. And Duvall nails the character of Walt, although he struggles with the Cuban accent. Still, he comes a lot closer than Al Pacino did as Tony Montana.
In fact, the movie is actually quite funny, especially in the beginning. There's little new here, but Harris and Duvall make an entertaining odd couple, and share a weird yet palpable chemistry. Unfortunately, when the movie turns serious in the third act and veers straight for the pathos, it seems to deflate before your very eyes. It's a close match that goes right down to the final bell, but thanks to the acting skills of the Harris-Duvall tag team, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway narrowly avoids getting pinned.