Just Look Away

Posted on May 13, 2011

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Sunset

“It’s all true, give or take a lie or two.”

This 1988 murder mystery has a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where only 36% of the audience report liking it. I think that’s a damn shame.

Why Bother?

“I fell in love with a beautiful woman who believed a man was not a complete lover unless he knew how to tango.”

This movie stars Bruce Willis and James Garner. I don’t know if they like each other in real life, but their chemistry on-screen is undeniable. Add in Malcolm McDowell as a sadistic film producer and studio head, and you’ve got something that could be fun. Perhaps that sounds like your shot glass of tequila.

A real murder inspired the plot of this film. In 1924, a mysterious death occurred aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, and Charlie Chaplin was among Hearst’s celebrity guests at the time. Sunset takes place five years later, and deals with the fallout from that event. If you’re interested in Hollywood history, this film might give you some insight.

I watched it

“She’s a grand 26 year old girl. I could have done myself permanent injury.”

In 1929, silent film cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) gets roped into (see what I did there?) making a movie about Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral. The head of the studio, Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell, playing a thinly disguised Charlie Chaplin), hires Wyatt Earp (James Garner) as a technical adviser. Earp has an ulterior motive for accepting the job. He knows Alperin’s wife, Victoria, and she’s asked him for help. Her son, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), is an alcoholic and Victoria hopes the famous marshal can straighten him up. When Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp catch up with Michael, he’s lying next to a dead body. The movie star and the marshal must team up to protect the young man and find the real murderer.

The Verdict

“To honest men and brave women, and friendships tried and true.”

The negative reviews note the uneven tone of this Blake Edward’s film, and they have a point. On the one hand, Willis and Garner are warm, charming, and funny. On the other, the movie doesn’t sugar coat the corruption and crime of 1920s Los Angeles. It’s quite frank about brutality, cruelty, sexual practices, and prostitution, without being graphic. The two tones rarely appear in the same scene, but they don’t coexist completely peacefully, either.

Another theme in negative reviews is that the plot unravels on its own, and I don’t think that’s fair. Detectives from Philip Marlowe to Spenser (for Hire) have solved cases in books and on screen for decades, simply by asking questions and showing up in awkward places until the bad guys show their hands. Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp don’t do much more, here, but it’s not fair to criticize this film on that basis without criticizing others for the same thing.

There’s a rule in writing that you’re allowed one big coincidence in every story. In this one, it’s a lawyer showing up out of the blue with a safety deposit box key. The key leads Mix and Earp to the confession statement of a now-dead witness to the 1924 murder. It’s a little too easy, because none of the characters work to acquire this critical piece of evidence.

That said, it’s a far better movie than the Rotten Tomatoes score would lead you to believe. Willis and Garner are at their easygoing, charming, best. Kathleen Quinlan and Mariel Hemingway are terrific in supporting roles. The period production values are gorgeous. Please don’t look way from the film just based on the reviews. See it and judge for yourself.

Historical Notes

Tom Mix never made a movie about Wyatt Earp, but Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp did know, and like, each other. Wyatt Earp was a technical adviser in Hollywood for awhile. He passed in 1929, at the age of eighty (so James Garner was 20 years too young in 1988), before the events in this film could have happened. Tom Mix was one of his pallbearers.

If you’d like to see a movie about the 1924 mysterious death, check out the 2001 recounting, The Cat’s Meow.

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