Wrestling Ernest Hemingway

If you want to see four old pros who really know what they're doing, watch Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a small, touching movie about elderly friendship. Nothing much happens here -- which is as it should be, when the cast boasts Richard Harris, Robert Duvall, Shirley MacLaine and Piper Laurie.

An improbable platonic love story set in a small Florida community for seniors, the movie humorously and gracefully unites two lonely, completely different old men. Frank (Harris), an ex-sea captain, is a crusty old Irish salt in baggy, clashing clothes who tells tall tales, does pushups in the nude and makes plays for his no-nonsense landlady (MacLaine) and a Miss Manners moviegoer (Laurie). Walt (Duvall), a retired barber, is an unassuming Cuban gentle-man of honor who, from a distance, roots for hapless Little Leaguers and has a shy crush on a young waitress (sweetly played by Sandra Bullock) he orders bacon sandwiches from every day. Frank has had four wives; Walt is an old-world bachelor. Frank speaks "colorfully"; Walt doesn't. Yet they so lack human contact that they cannot help but bond.

More acute than The Odd Couple and less uproarious than The Sunshine Boys, this film finds great depths of warm-heartedness in coming together, feeling awkward, being mean, going apart, restoring relations. Along with a bicycle built for two and synchronized skinny-dipping, there are beautiful fireworks and a tender shave-and-a-haircut. A son's not coming to visit and a gift-giver's faux pas loom large; small moments are made oh-so-big in this delicate slice-of-aged-life written by Steve Conrad -- who was 21 at the time.

Sensitive director Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God, The Doctor) is consistently mindful: The men, for instance, socialize while sitting at the convergence of two park paths and argue while standing on opposite sides of a road's yellow lines. Perhaps her one misstep is an unexpected sadness that can never be made better. But these characters find fountains of youth in human connections, not in alien cocoons.

--Peter Szatmary


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