By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: 60’s radical turned detective.
Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss) was at one time a student radical during the tumultuous 60’s, but now it is 1978 and he is working as a private eye. Most of his cases are unexciting and even mundane, but then Lila Shay (Susan Anspach) a woman he had a fling with during his college days shows up asking for his help. She is now working for a candidate running for governor and she wants Moses to find Eppis (F. Murray Abraham) a former student radical himself who has now gone underground, but seems to be smearing her candidate’s campaign and hurting his ability to be elected. Moses takes the case on a whim, but finds it to be much more complex and dangerous than he bargained for.
The film is based on the novel by Roger L. Simon who also wrote the screenplay and it is almost like a revisionist private eye movie. Everything that we’ve come to accept in this genre gets turned upside down and for the most part with great and amusing success. Moses is not a tough, brawny, stoic figure like most detectives in these films, but instead a little shrimp of a guy that can easily get hyper and frazzled and is certainly never cool under pressure. Many times he will bring his two young sons on the case with him and even use there insight to help him solve the case. He makes mistakes and even has to write certain things down to avoid forgetting them unlike those other detectives that always seem to remember even the smallest tidbits of information. By making the Moses character more human he becomes better relatable and the viewer feels almost like they are in his shoes, which is what makes the story work.
Simon’s script also is a great character study showing how the student protestors from the 60’s have now begrudgingly and awkwardly taken on adult roles and even become a part of the dreaded ‘establishment’. This comes to a head with the Abraham character the one time head of an underground movement that now is seen living in suburbia as a ho-hum family man. His line about why so many of his fellow radicals ‘sold-out’ and became a part of the suburban culture is an excellent and keen observation.
Dreyfuss is perfect in the role as a wise-guy, cynical smart ass. Most of the times characters and actors with these traits are off-putting, but somehow with him it is always engaging. The character is also nicely multi-dimensional. He is acerbic and brash one minute, but then singing lullabies over the phone to his children the next. He acts like his has ‘moved on’ from the 60’s, but then later on tears come to his eyes when he looks at a film of some old student protests. Dreyfuss also broke his wrist just before filming began and so they wrote it into the script and it becomes a funny running gag as different people ask him how he broke it and each time he tells them something that becomes increasingly more outrageous and amusing.
Bill Conti’s musical score is bouncy and distinctive and gives the film an added kick. He also employs several different styles including ragtime, disco, electronic and even a ballad by Leon Redbone.
The mystery is full of twists and close attention must be paid, but it is doubtful anyone will figure the surprise at the end. Baby boomers that lived through the period may be more connected to this than others, but it is still entertaining and a terrific time capsule.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: October 6, 1978
Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes
Director: Jeremy Kagan
Available: VHS, Netflix streaming