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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Everybody Wins’ Falls a Bit Short of Victory

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

You know you’re in trouble in “Everybody Wins” from the very first scene. Nick Nolte, playing private investigator Tom O'Toole, turns his car radio on to Leon Redbone warbling “I Want to Be Seduced.” Then, within minutes, he’s being seduced for real by a shady woman of questionable motive, played by Debra Winger. Literal mindedness in a movie is almost always a tip-off that things aren’t going to get any better.

Still, you hope against hope that things will indeed get better in “Everybody Wins” (citywide) because the people involved have the kind of track records that can’t be just dismissed. Besides Nolte and Winger, the director is Karel Reisz (“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Sweet Dreams”), and the screenwriter is Arthur Miller, this being only his second screenplay since the 1961 “The Misfits.” The cinematographer is the great Ian Baker, who has shot all of Fred Schepisi’s films, the score is by Mark Isham, one of the most gifted modern movie composers, and the supporting cast includes the always tip-top Judith Ivey. So what went so dreadfully wrong?

In the first place, everybody in this film sounds like they’re reading lines translated from Scandanavian. Miller’s dialogue on stage is at least overwrought in ways we’ve become accustomed to, but on screen, in those wide-open spaces, it’s arch beyond imagining. It’s brutal listening to Nolte and Winger trying to cope with mouthfuls of mealy verbiage. Teamwork-wise, things have gotten quite a bit worse for these two since their last pairing eight years ago in “Cannery Row,” and that was none too good.

The film is very loosely based on an actual ‘70s false-conviction murder case in Canaan, Conn., that Miller was instrumental in re-opening (and which already was the basis for the TV movie “A Death in Canaan,” directed by Tony Richardson). Nevertheless, nothing that anyone does in this thriller is remotely believable, or thrilling. Reisz and Miller try to turn these faults of incomprehension to their advantage by pivoting their film on Winger’s Angela, a woman with enough character disorders to stock an entire miniseries. Believing that a boy has been wrongly convicted of a murder in her rural Connecticut hometown, Angela seeks out O'Toole to find the real killer, whom she claims to know. She claims to know a lot of things.

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It’s not a bad idea to base a psychological whodunit on a character who is constantly mutating personalities, or a private investigator whose investigations stop just short of his own willful blindness. But the mutations here are simply an excuse for dumb plotting and wayward dramaturgy. The film has nihilist ambitions--its title, of course, is ironic. Reisz and Miller want to unload the shocker that corruption is indestructible even in the precincts of small-town America. That must be why they heave all this unsorted, undigested material at us. They’re hoping for a fragmentary, disassociated, “modern” effect, something that will connect with a contemporary, free-floating sense of dread and hopelessness. The trick is separating out the real from the delusional. The question is: Do you really want to bother?


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