This review of Tequila Sunrise originally appeared in 1988 at The New Yorker and is reprinted here with permission from Pauline Kael’s daughter, Gina James.
Michelle Pfeiffer tells Mel Gibson how sorry she is that she hurt his feelings. He replies, “C’mon, it didn’t hurt that bad,” pauses, and adds, “Just lookin’ at you hurts more.” If a moviegoer didn’t already know that Tequila Sunrise was the work of a master romantic tantalizer, Gibson’s line should clinch it. That’s the kind of ritualized confession of love that gave a picture like To Have and Have Not its place in moviegoers’ affections. What makes the line go ping is that Mel Gibson’s blue eyes are wide with yearning as he says it, and Michelle Pfeiffer is so crystalline in her beauty that he seems to be speaking the simple truth. (If she weren’t a vision, the picture would crash.) It’s a line that Gary Cooper might have spoken to Marlene Dietrich in Morocco; it requires youth and innocence in the man and flowerlike perfection in the woman.
You have to be able to enjoy trashy shamelessness to enjoy old Hollywood and to enjoy Tequila Sunrise. Robert Towne, who wrote and directed, is soaked in the perfume of 30s and 40s Hollywood romanticism. Chances are that while you’re watching the triangular shuffle of Gibson and Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, as Gibson’s friend who also gets involved with Pfeiffer, you’ll know you’re being had but you’ll love it. This old shell game can make you feel alert and happy—at least, it can when it’s brought up to date with the seductive panache of a Robert Towne.
Tequila Sunrise is about flirtation; it’s about Towne’s wanting to give pleasure. Set in San Pedro and the other beach communities in and around L.A., it has a golden, studied casualness; the cinematographer, Conrad Hall, feasts on the stars’ faces, the three sets of blue eyes, the beachfront, the water washing through the scenes, the waves crashing over lovers. All this beauty—and it’s about cops and robbers! And not even about that, exactly. Towne has the effrontery to offer us the wizened plot device of the two friends from school days—one (Gibson) has become a crook, the other (Russell) a cop—who are in love with the same girl. But the movie is much too derivative and vague to be a successful crime melodrama; it doesn’t have the compression of a thriller. There’s an emptiness at its center—a feeling of hurt and loneliness, a lesion of vitality.
Gibson’s McKussic, a former drug dealer who’s desperately trying to succeed in the irrigation business, is driven to make manic fun of how hard it has been to get out of the drug trade. He tells Pfeiffer’s Jo Ann, “Nobody wants me to quit. The cops wanna bust me, the Colombians want my connections, my wife she wants my money, her lawyer agrees, and mine likes getting paid to argue with them…. I haven’t even mentioned my customers. You know they don’t want me to quit.” This special pleading for McKussic’s purity is right at the heart of the movie (and it gives Mel Gibson a warmer character than he has played before). Mac is like the Bogart heroes who have finer feelings than people understand, and his love for Jo Ann is a truer, deeper love than Russell’s Nick Frescia offers. (Mac is also a prodigious cocksman.) It doesn’t take long for a viewer to grasp that Mac is the writer-director’s simplified and idealized version of himself. Besides, Towne has said that his legal troubles—a divorce, and litigation over a couple of movie projects—made him feel like a criminal, so that it was easy for him to identify with Mac. (And those who have read interviews with him won’t have much trouble spotting drug dealing as a metaphor for script doctoring, a lucrative sideline that his associates wanted him to mainline—his rewrites were a convenience for directors and producers. Drug dealing can also serve as a tidy metaphor for the messier matter of drug use, which also makes you feel like a criminal.)
The movie has a lot of talk about friendship, and whether the bond between Mac and Nick, who’s the head of the narcotics squad in L.A. County, can withstand the pressure from the Feds to bust Mac, or can withstand Nick’s wily maneuvers to extract information about Mac from Jo Ann. But the characters aren’t centered enough for their subterfuges to amount to much—they’re just vagrant impulses that lead to romantic misunderstandings. Towne’s actual legal troubles involved old, close friends, but in the movie he doesn’t supply the injuries that have been done to Mac and doesn’t pin them on anybody in particular. (Nick hasn’t done any real harm to him, and even when they argue their voices have the rhythm of friends arguing.) Yet Mac is melancholy, as if betrayal were in the air he breathed. We do see that he’s bled dry by his ex-wife (Ann Magnuson), who’s out for everything she can get and won’t let him see his son if he doesn’t deliver his payments. But his grievances seem cosmic, and he longs for a decent, respectable life. His character is a victim fantasy.
The picture may have a special erotic appeal for women, because Mac is waiting for the true-heart woman, the woman whose love is limitless and unconditional, the woman whose only need is to be a helpmate. That’s Jo Ann, a woman who never lies. (She’s the opposite of Brigid in The Maltese Falcon.) Jo Ann, who, with her brother, operates an elegant Italian restaurant, is soft-spoken and refined—a lady. She has her own code of honor, her own gallantry. At the restaurant, she’s a pro: she’s thoroughly in command of seeming in command. And the film equates her smoothness with the best of traditional values. She isn’t up to anything, so Mac can put himself in her hands. And she falls in love with him, supposedly, because she believes that he’s been more truthful to her than Nick has been. It’s a priggish, vacuous ideal-woman role, but Michelle Pfeiffer bursts right through it. She activates Towne’s romantic dream of the good, kind woman.
Kurt Russell’s worldly jokester Nick—a calculating charmer—gives the plot a little bit of motor, or, at least, an occasional push. And the movie badly needs Russell’s brazenness and his slippery grin; it needs his sly, shiny eyes. Nick locates us in a wisecracking movie tradition, especially when he razzes the high-muck-a-muck from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. (J. T. Walsh makes this clown villain the quintessential flatfoot; it’s a classic turn.) But Russell’s main function is as a contrast to Mac, who’s the male ingenue here. Both Nick and Jo Ann want to protect Mac, because he’s a-hurtin’. And because he’s a saintly stud.
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Towne’s memory is stocked with movie tricks, but what he really treasures is the rhapsodic buzz of those moments when two stars hooked into each other’s eyes. That’s what saves Tequila Sunrise. His obsessions about friendship and betrayal don’t mesh with the plot (which is off somewhere floating in cloudland), but his understanding of how movies work for audiences lightens this movie, keeps it happy. It’s about a guy who wants to say, “I’m dying from loving you so much,” and a girl who knows that in a hot tub he’s “like a world champion.” Traditionally, these feeling are disguised, or kidded, before they’re presented—in public. Robert Towne puts them right out on the table. (Both Mac and Nick approach Jo Ann through the pain her beauty causes them. Nick phones and tells her, “I’m going to die if I don’t see you.”) By rational standards the movie is flimsy and stupid, but by romantic standards it’s delectable. The three talented stars are smashing, and the film’s paranoid narcissism is dreamy and pretty. Hollywood glamor has a lot to do with a moviegoer’s braving out the silliness that’s part of it. This is a lusciously silly movie. It has an amorous shine.
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Pauline Kael was one of the great critics of the 20th Century. The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz and published by The Library of America, is a great place to begin digging into Kael’s vast, hugely entertaining body of work.