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Tin Men
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Movie that's 'Tin' to the Ear and Eye"
2 stars

It's got a capable cast who've proven invaluable before but can't overcome a big nothing of a script.

Barry Levinson's Tin Men is so inoffensively bland that it wastes not just the talent of the same writer/director who served up an excellent moviemaking debut with 1982's Diner, but the considerable talents of Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito in woefully insufficient leading roles. In Diner, Levinson gave us a superbly textured, uncommonly incisive coming-of-age tale that just about transcended genre -- it consisted of a tight-knit group of early twentysomethings coming to terms with emotional insecurities and responsibilities; and with sharp dialogue, snazzy 1950s period detail, and a quartet of amazing performances by up-and-comers Mickey Rourke, Steve Gutteneberg, Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern, it still stands the test of time as a considerable achievement. After this, Levinson gave us the two fine big-budget efforts The Natural and Young Sherlock Holmes, both of which did decent box-office business and delivered the goods despite their flaws. With Tin Men, Levinson's first solo screenwriting effort since Diner, we're right back in his native Baltimore, but the freshness Diner had in bountiful supply is direly absent here, as if Levinson were running on fumes and was desperate to get back to his "roots." The movie centers around the ongoing battle between two aluminum-siding salesmen, Dreyfuss's ace Bill "B.B." Babowsky and DeVito's struggling Ernest Tilley, the former of whom accidentally drives his newly purchased Cadillac right out of the showroom into the latter's older Cadillac, setting off an antagonistic relationship that hasn't nearly enough material for one-hundred-and-eight minutes. Each avers the other was at fault, and each takes turns maligning the other's car with the maturity level of two kids going at it in a sandbox; Levinson wants to communicate that these grown men are lacking in maturity yet are essentially decent-hearted, but neither character has the substance and verity to sustain much interest -- their behavior is quintessentially infantile, and you simply can't fathom how they manage to make it through a normal workday without engaging in some kind of major conflict. An instinctive manipulator, B.B. zeroes in on Ernest's unhappy wife Nora (Barbara Hershey) and successfully seduces her, though you can't tell whether B.B. succeeds because she's married to Ernest or because the balding short-round DeVito plays him (somehow I don't think this would've ensued had an average-size full-haired actor were playing him). And wouldn't you know, the lifelong bachelor B.B. eventually develops feelings for this woman and is finally ready to commit himself; and maybe, just maybe, by the end of the movie B.B. and Ernest will have become friends?

Tin Men takes place four years after Diner, in 1963, and it's nice to see two recurring characters in the home-improvement businessman Bagel still prospering and the elderly waitress Florence still refilling coffee cups at the same diner. They're such a welcome sight we wish more screen time could've been afforded them in light of how dull B.B. and Ernest come off. Which is a shame because Dreyfuss and De Vito can deliver the goods when the material is right, and, on occasion, as was the case the previous year (Dreyfuss in Paul Mazurka's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, DeVito in Brian De Palma's Wise Guys), when it's lacking; but their roles here are so limited, so dramatically square there isn't a moment when we genuinely respond to them. (You keep waiting for Levinson to start revealing layers to them; you're still waiting when the final credits start rolling.) And because Hershey is her usual unsurprising self, barely keeping up with even the miniscule demands of her role, she can't jog anything loose in either Dreyfuss or DeVito; then again, Nora is the character Levinson paid the least attention to -- half the time you can tell what's going to come out of her mouth before it's spoken. Levinson does a bit better with the workplace chatter among B.B. and Ernest and their associates, along with their deceitful practices like promising a prospect their house will make the cover of Life magazine if adorned with over three-thousand dollars in siding, or promising free siding in exchange for labor costs and later charging the same for the labor as the siding would cost. In an underdeveloped subplot, a special government commission is in town holding hearings concerning allegations of fraud in the siding industry, which leads to scenes of undercover informants and a couple of surprise twists that belong in an entirely different movie -- it doesn't enhance or deepen the characters in any way except to provide material to pad out the running time (as was also the case with the Tim Daly/pregnant-girlfriend subplot in Diner, its only weak element). Tin Men is lackluster in its technical aspects, as well. The cinematography by Peter Sova is unaccountably drab, the production design by Peter Jamison lacks any unexpected detail, and the mediocre editing by Stu Linder is never ahead of us by that crucial second or two. And unlike with Diner, Levinson hasn't even collated a decent soundtrack of then-period pop hits. The movie is startlingly inept, not the least bit enjoyable, and because its actors have been all but neutered to fuse with a practically nonexistent core, we have no more stake in the characters anymore than we would figures in a pop-up book. Here's hoping Barry Levinson has only momentarily lost his way.

Check out "Diner."

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originally posted: 03/28/14 14:13:29
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USA
  06-Mar-1987 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  20-Aug-1987




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