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Review -- 'Tough Guys Don't Dance'

By CATHY BURKE, United Press International

Novelist Norman Mailer describes his new film, 'Tough Guys Don't Dance,' as one that doesn't 'fit into a comfortable category,' falling 'somewhere in a no man's land between a murder mystery, a suspense tale, a film of horror and a comedy of manners.'

In other words, 'Tough Guys Don't Dance,' written and directed by Mailer, is a film hodgepodge, alternately beguiling and repulsive, incredibly ugly and remarkably beautiful, deadly serious and uproariously silly. Mailer evidently enjoys telling this quirky tale - and seems to care less if anyone appreciates its black humor. Pure Mailer arrogance.

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Starring Ryan O'Neal as the hero of this 'film noir,' Isabella Rossellini as his former love, Debra Sandlund as the witchy, wild wife and Wings Hauser as the diabolical police captain, 'Tough Guys Don't Dance' is a study in extremes, just the kind of vehicle that is an actor's dream.

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The intricate plot, set in a picturesque New England resort, places O'Neal's character, a failed writer, at the focus of an investigation of several grisly murders committed during the resort's off-season. His story unfolds through flashbacks as the hero bares his soul to his ailing and pugnacious father, played by Lawrence Tierney.

It turns out the writer is being set up to take the fall for the murders -- five in all, not including a suicide -- all of which were inspired by a lucrative cocaine deal invoving the writer's ex-school chum, played by John Bedford Lloyd, an ex-porn star, played by Frances Fisher, her homosexual companion, played by Patrick Sullivan, the writer's current wife, and her lover, the police chief.

Rossellini plays the writer's ex-wife whose beauty and goodness still haunt him, and their true love is rekindled by all these gruesome goings on.

Sound involved? Pure Mailer arrogance.

O'Neal is the perfect choice for the boozy hero; his boyish good looks and blandness are perfect for the cruelty, deception and greed to which he becomes victim. For that matter, the entire cast is perfect, maybe because they so obviously enjoy every chance they get to emote. All of them are pretty good at it, too.

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There's certainly everything an actor could want in 'Tough Guys Don't Dance,' from 'low greed' to extraordinary beauty, from carnality such as New England -- or any place on earth -- has never seen, to high-minded philosophizing. Indeed, there's general inhumanity shown at every economic and social level.

Mailer admittedly has created a movie that will make audiences uncomfortable, simply because there's no one theme to grab hold of. 'What a good movie does to people is put them in a place they can't quite name, which I think is the essence of the existential experience.'

It's a singularly masochistic -- and again, arrogant -- view of an audience, and a statement too obviously broad to be true. But it certainly describes 'Tough Guys Don't Dance.'

There's no denying Mailer is a man with vision, and the eloquence to describe it. It's just that the vision is so troubling, so mean and raw and frightening. 'People really don't know what's going on out there,' one character opines. I guess not.

'Tough Guys Don't Dance' probably won't win Mailer a box-office smash, but it won't be easy to forget for those who do see it -- whether or not they appreciate Mailer's troubled vision and his own high opinion of his abilities.

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This movie is rated R.

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