In "The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" (at the Goldwyn Pavilion) Katharine Hepburn, in the title role, is a Manhattan widow who catches professional assassin Nick Nolte in the act of doing away with her hated landlord. She blackmails him into agreeing to put her out of her misery as a lonely, aging and impoverished woman.
But before this can happen she decides that a number of her acquaintances should benefit from Nolte's services as well. As this circle widens, Hepburn discovers a renewed purpose in life: helping others receive the exit they crave so deeply. Pretty soon she and the initially--and understandably--reluctant Nolte are in business. He feels redeemed by Hepburn's view of him as a savior.
So far so good, under Anthony Harvey's spirited direction, but this obviously offbeat and pitch-black comedy starts losing momentum when writer A. Martin Zweiback starts trying to square an unflinching satire of the plight of the sick and the elderly in our society with a finish that appeases conventional morality, and which suggests that Zweiback was uncertain as to exactly where--and how far--to take Hepburn and Nolte's story.
Even so, Zweiback, who shares the film's executive producer credit with his wife Adrienne, does voice his message of the right of the individual to exercise freedom of choice as to whether to live or die. This version of the film is Zweiback's, and it would seem to be tougher, especially in its ending, than the one that opened so disastrously in New York and at the Cannes Film Festival last year (and is now available only in videocassettes).
"The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" is a fine example of what the French call a film maudit , or cursed film. It doesn't really work but it's so far-out and unusual it does have its moments, especially when it's recalling that British comedy classic "The Green Man," in which Alistair Sim went around eliminating individuals who contributed only to the unhappiness of the world. (Would that it had more of "The Green Man's" light touch and lack of sentimentality.)
The strengths of "The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" are the imaginative dream prologue and epilogue and the fine performances from Hepburn and Nolte, which they frame (although the epilogue seems pointlessly evasive regarding Nolte's fate). Never so visibly frail yet indomitable in spirit, Hepburn holds the film together with her unassailable authority and presence.
Had "Grace Quigley" been a play such as "West Side Waltz" or "A Matter of Gravity," in which the great star also jousted bravely with advancing years, Hepburn might just have pulled it off and made it work on sheer personality and skill, as she did with those relatively minor works. But film is a relentless exposer of contrivance, and "Grace Quigley" has more than its share.
Considering the shifts in tone--and even sanity--that the film requires of its stars, it's amazing that Hepburn and Nolte manage as well as they do. Nolte really does provide an excellent foil to Hepburn, showing us that lost motherless boy in the killer who's actually so ridden with guilt he's driven to seek therapy for the nosebleeds, headaches and shooting pains that plague him.
Although Hepburn and Nolte are really the whole show, Chip Zien scores as Nolte's amusingly intense psychiatrist as does William Jenkins as Hepburn's wistful, painfully ill friend. Harris Laskawy and Christopher Murney are as loathsome a landlord and cabbie, respectively, as you're ever likely to have the misfortune of meeting. Newcomer Kit Le Fever (as Nolte's hooker girlfriend) and the veteran Elizabeth Wilson (as a miserable acquaintance of Hepburn's) have thankless roles.
"The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" (MPAA-rated: PG) actually is more provocative and substantial than many of the other disappointments that have flooded movie screens this year. At least it's about something--and it does have Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte.