You could dismiss 1985's Twice in a Lifetime as "yet another divorce flick" if you wanted to, but in order to do that you'd have to intentionally overlook a surprisingly insightful screenplay and two entirely fantastic lead performances. This flick might be a case of a familiar story told YET again, but it's told warmly and efficiently here ... plus it's got Hackman and Burstyn.
Gene Hackman plays Harry Mackenzie, a hard-working steelworker and entirely generic family man. But when Harry meets a beautiful barmaid during his 50th birthday party, things get a little intense. After discovering that a new lover has re-invigorated his lust for life, Harry heads back home to leave his doting and devoted wife. Needless to say, this news is shocking to Mrs. Mackenzie -- and more than a little stressful to Harry's grown-up daughters.
And if it sounds like Harry's kind of a bastard, well, that's because director Bud Yorkin is not all that interested in making excuses for his characters. Twice in a Lifetime is not a pat or sugar-coated look at the angst of divorce; it's more of a candid character study that focuses on the ways in which mid-life divorce can tear an entire family apart.
In the lead role, Gene Hackman is, well c'mon, it's Gene Hackman! With another actor in the role, I suspect Harry could have easily come off as a spoiled and selfish jerk -- but with Hackman on the job, we see all of Harry's flaws, clear as day, and yet we can still manage to relate with the guy's crisis. As Harry's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Ellen Burstyn delivers precisely the sort of performance that she's known for. And that means she's sweet-yet-wounded, damaged but hopeful, and absolutely grounded in reality. This is not a movie full of showy "gimme an award!" performances -- and Hackman & Burstyn are just the two biggest assets.
Amy Madigan did, in fact, earn an Oscar nomination for her performance as Harry's infuriated eldest daughter, while seasoned pros like Brian Dennehy and Ally Sheedy handle their supporting roles with effortless confidence. And as "the other woman," Ann-Margret brings a sweetness and complexity to a character that's usually painted with broadly villainous brush strokes.
Twice in a Lifetime clearly comes from a place of actual sincerity and sadness, as if the writer and director have first-hand experience with the prickly issue of mid-life divorce -- and they refuse to let the issue devolve into overdramatic hand-wringing and unconvincing stereotypes.
Video: Ugh. A bloated, grainy, and almost entirely worthless Fullscreen presentation is all we're offered here. Frankly, and I know I'm not alone here, it sickens me to see a movie released in this sort of package. If you have to include your atrocious FF transfers, Warner Bros., then please do those of us who actually care about movies a small favor ... and give us the original aspect ratio on the flip side.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which sounds perfectly fine for such a chat-heavy movie. Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.
Extras: The only supplemental item included is an audio commentary with director Bud Yorkin and actresses Amy Madigan & Ann-Margret. It's a fairly dry track, but the participants clearly have a fondness for this forgotten old melodrama, and they're full of old anecdotes, so the commentary is a worthwhile inclusion all the same.
At times so personal that the act of watching the movie often feels like eavesdropping, Twice in a Lifetime succeeds because of a screenplay that reeks of true-life experience and a stellar handful of actors who keep the material from ever becoming maudlin or ripe. Sure, it's just one more "divorce" movie spawned from an era that was seemingly obsessed with the topic, but there's also a lot of truth and sincerity to be found in this particular piece. And if you're a fan of either Hackman or Burstyn, you'll certainly want to give this one a rental.
And I say "rental" instead of "purchase" for one simple reason: Movies that are not exported to DVD in their original theatrical dimensions are not DVDs that deserve your 15 bucks. Stop buying the FF-only DVDs and eventually the companies will stop releasing them.