This week’s new Gene Hackman movie, following “Bat 21" and “Split Decisions,” is “Full Moon in Blue Water” (citywide)--a pretty unashamed piece of expanded theater, but probably the best of his recent string. Written by playwright Bill Bozzone and directed by stage veteran Peter Masterson, it’s set mostly in and around a dilapidated bar and grill called the Blue Water. They have structured it in the classic claustrophobic, close-confrontation style of American stage plays, from “The Iceman Cometh” to “Fool for Love.”
In this case, Bozzone’s dramaturgy goes back further, almost to “East Lynne.” There’s a deed to the ranch, or, rather, back taxes on the Blue Water, and a squeeze by ruthless politicians and a smarmy real estate agent (Kevin Cooney.) There’s a fiery, feisty gal (Teri Garr) trying to snap bereaved widower-owner Floyd (Hackman) out of his Blue Water funk and a cantankerous old coot of a father-in-law (Burgess Meredith) riding a wheelchair. And there’s a slightly dim hired hand (Elias Koteas) with gooney delusions of grandeur, plus assorted rustic boyfriends, fat cops and a stickup man or two wandering in.
Inside, the Blue Water is a fetid mire of unpaid bar tabs, crazy arguments and a 16-millimeter film of Floyd’s vanished wife, running over and over. Outside, the sky stretches out in sheets of optimistic blue, counterpoint to the mounting chaos. Everyone converges on the Blue Water, or thrashes around on the beach. And things get nuttier and more desperate, seedier and funnier until they reach a climactic explosion.
Compared to many plays, “Full Moon in Blue Water” is not exactly seething with original ideas. But it goes against the grain of most recent movies, with their Ubermenschen and Ubermunchkins. Bozzone has fun with these characters, dealing, in an exaggerated way, with flawed people, real problems, bent and skewed situations.
His humor bubbles out of character and social observation: The loneliness of Meredith’s salty old general, Jimmy’s crazy dreams and the cruelty of the land speculators. The movie gives a sense of the messiness, ferment and unpredictability of life, in an admittedly predictable way.
The key lies in the handling. Cinematographer Fred Murphy (“The Dead,” “Hoosiers”) is, as before, a heartland poet of light. And Peter Masterson, like Kazan, Ritt or Lumet, is a real actor’s director. Masterson showed a flair for super-naturalistic performances in “A Trip to Bountiful"; here he’s working in a rowdier, more burlesqued, but only slightly less elegiac key. The actors all respond lustily, if you except a few cornball excesses in the smaller roles.
Koteas may be the standout; his Jimmy sometimes seems like a hybrid of Barney Fyfe, “Gunsmoke’s” Chester and Norman Bates, but he grounds it in convincingly raw pain and aspiration. Hackman gives Floyd a fine architectonic of loss and procrastination and Garr has the bright resilience of a snapped bowstring.
Burgess Meredith, raging like a Gulf Coast Lear, once again sprays the scene with passion, wit and irony. Has it really been 52 years since the 81-year-old Meredith debuted in the film of “Winterset?” Has he retained that technique and power for over half a century? This great actor might not get an Oscar for “Full Moon in Blue Water” (MPAA-rated R for language); maybe it’s too bald a star turn, too sentiment-laden a gesture. But isn’t it time to give him something?
‘FULL MOON IN BLUE WATER’
A Trans-World Entertainment presentation of a Turman-Foster Company production. Producers Lawrence Turman, David Foster, John Turman. Director Peter Masterson. Script Bill Bozzone. Camera Fred Murphy. Music Phil Marshall. Editor Abe Nejad. Production design Neil Spisak. With Gene Hackman, Teri Garr, Burgess Meredith, Elias Koteas, Kevin Cooney.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).