July 31, 2009

Nadine (1987)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Robert Benton
Stars: Kim Basinger, Jeff Bridges, Rip Torn

What it's about. A comedy set in pre-Elvis Austin, Texas. Kim Basinger is a blonde bombshell whose hubbie Jeff Bridges has left her for sassy cutie Glenne Headly, unaware that Basinger has an early stage pregnancy. Bridges is hopelessly in debt because the roadside bar he remains devoted to is a financial failure.

Basinger has had a revealing session with an unethical photographer. She confronts him to obtain the photos, but instead is given blueprints for a proposed highway. Those blueprints are coveted by evil businessman Rip Torn, who tracks down and threatens Basinger and her erstwhile husband Bridges. The two team up heroically to defeat Rip Torn, and just as inevitably, fall in love once again.

How others will see it. In earlier, better days, writer/director Robert Benton scored commercial and critical hits with Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart. Nadine was certainly less successful, probably because it was strictly a screwball comedy. This immediately made it less momentous than the two aforementioned films, and it didn't help that the plot involved such 'frivolous' elements as a box of rattlesnakes, a creaky ladder, and a red-bearded henchman.

User ratings are indifferent across both genres and all ages. Women prefer it slightly, due to Basinger's plum role, and older viewers prefer it slightly, perhaps out of nostalgia for neon signs and classic cars.

How I felt about it. Nadine is underrated. Yes, it is a comedy, and, yes, the shenanigans with the villains take up too much of the movie. But at its core, this is a romantic triangle with three appealing leads, even if Headly's role is unfortunately shorted. Basinger and Bridges are ideally cast, and there is genuine warmth between them, even when their bickering (and Bridges' girlfriend and debt) appears to make them incompatible.

Some might feel that Bridges takes to criminal activity (breaking and entering, theft of public documents, etc.) too readily. But because of his debt, he is a desperate man, and sees the highway plans as a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn his life around. Add in characteristic cockiness, and he actually believes he can best Rip Torn and remain one step ahead of the law. What choice does he have?

Still, the movie might have been better if Rip Torn and his rattlesnakes had been left out of the story altogether. Basinger could have won back Bridges from Headly in a subplot involving his precious juke joint dive. Basinger could have acquired her beauty shots from the photographer, stopped at the bar to argue with Bridges, and inadvertently left the photos there, to be discovered by Headly. Headly would demand an explanation, Bridges would glibly lie, and the lie would be discovered when Basinger returns to the bar for the photos. Basinger would return to Bridges because she is pregnant and because her hairdresser boss insists upon it.

It would be a much simpler story. Would it be too simple? Does a romantic comedy need a major crime subplot? If so, to be successful commercially or artistically? No and no. The user guide to screwball comedies remains Bringing Up Baby (1938). The lesson from that film is that wackiness works. Bad guys waving guns and shooting people does not.