Times Staff Writer

How could so many winners go so wrong?

“Legal Eagles” (opening today at Avco, Cinerama Dome; Friday citywide) stars Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah in the worst movie of their respective careers.

Producer-director Ivan Reitman, fresh off “Ghostbusters,” is no slouch either, but how could he have gone ahead with the script Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. developed, after a fashion, from a story he wrote with them? And whatever possessed Redford, Winger and Hannah to do it? These are the real mysteries in this inept, incoherent and charmless would-be romantic comedy-thriller.

Redford is Tom Logan, a Manhattan assistant district attorney being groomed by the D.A. (Steven Hill) as his successor--until he crosses paths with Winger and Hannah. Winger is Laura Kelly, a single-minded attorney defending the spacey Chelsea Deardon (Hannah), who’s accused of stealing one of her late father’s paintings.

Complications multiply rapidly but with ever-diminishing interest; all you really need to know--and all that you may be able to figure out for sure--is that the entire plot turns upon the possibility that not all of Deardon’s father’s paintings were lost in a fire that cost his life when she was a little girl.

Browbeaten by Kelly, constantly tripped up by the sheer klutziness of Deardon and absent-minded himself, Logan is a dedicated careerist who’s inadvertently plunged into a nightmare, thrown into such chaos that when he narrowly misses being gunned down by a hit man, he never gets around to telling Kelly (or anyone else) about it! The idea is that Kelly and Logan grow mutually attracted as they join forces in Deardon’s behalf, yet he and Deardon have a one-night stand, apparently for no other reason than to keep up the glamorous Redford image.


But then relationships, like everything else in this misguided venture, cannot withstand close scrutiny. “Legal Eagles” plays as if Reitman had jettisoned the plot to see what humor and emotion he could drum up between his stars. Since he didn’t come up with much, we’re left to the uninviting chore of trying to keep track of a plot that seems to grow only more silly, pointless and confused. Disastrously, Reitman and company try to tie it up with a tired-out chase sequence.

After a string of such rambunctious smash successes as producer or director (or both) of “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” Reitman apparently wanted to try for a more sophisticated form of comedy, with resonances of the Loy-Powell " Thin Man” and the Tracy-Hepburn “Adam’s Rib.”

But he doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to go about it, nor understand the all-importance of tone in making making madcap nonsense work.

Production designer John DeCuir, cameraman Laszlo Kovacs and composer Elmer Bernstein give the film a sleek contemporary look and sound, but it’s unable to live up to the glossy surface they have provided. (Since “Legal Eagles” cost a reported $30 million-plus, you’d have thought the many authentic paintings on view in it were bought rather than borrowed.)

We’re told Redford’s assistant D.A. is noted for his style and charm, something Redford summons with predictable ease, but the next moment we’re asked to believe such a clearly cultivated type wouldn’t be able to identify a huge Picasso. Redford radiates alertness and self-control, yet he’s asked to carry on like Chevy Chase. Winger is too young, too intelligent and too radiant to play second fiddle to Hannah even for a moment. Yet Hannah has the most thankless assignment, asked to play a type so dippy that she seems more a fish out of water than she ever did as the mermaid in “Splash.”

Hannah, cast as a performance artist, actually gets to put on a pretentious, embarrassingly Freudian fire-and-ashes routine for Redford; it makes you wince to realize that it seems not intended to draw laughs (Laurie Anderson has nothing to fear here). Brian Dennehy does a brief, toned-down reprise of his “F/X” cop, and Terence Stamp is once again an oily villain. “Legal Eagles” fails the bar with a thud.

‘LEGAL EAGLES’ A Universal release. Executive producers Joe Medjuck, Michael C. Gross. Producer-director Ivan Reitman. Screenplay Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr.; from a story by Reitman, Cash, Epps. Camera Laszlo Kovacs. Production designer John DeCuir. Music Elmer Bernstein. Associate producers Sheldon Kahn, Arnold Glimcher. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Stunt coordinator Alan R. Gibbs. Special visual effects Boss Film Corp. Film editor Sheldon Kahn. With Robert Redford, Debra Winger, Daryl Hannah, Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Steven Hill, David Clennon, John McMartin, Jennie Dundas, Sara Botsford, Roscoe Lee Browne.

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).