Picks and Pans Review: Tough Guys Don't Dance

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Norman Mailer can make his thoughts, even the most crackbrained, leap off the page. In Tough Guys, his 1984 novel, the pulpy murder plot about drugs, decadence and decapitated blondes on Cape Cod was elevated by Mailer's perversely comic word wizardry. But as writer-director of the film version, the literary giant proves a cinematic pygmy. The only difference between Tough Guys and Mailer's amateurish '60s films (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) is that the new film cost more and looks better. Shot in and around Mailer's summer home in Provincetown, Mass., the film oozes atmosphere and dread. But don't look for any characters; drained of life onscreen, they are merely mouthpieces for Mailer's musings on machismo, misogyny and madness. In interviews, Mailer, 64, admits he has much to learn as a filmmaker but claims a real expertise with actors. Huh? Ryan O'Neal, as an ex-con writer deserted by his rich, tarty wife (Debra Sandlund), has never floundered more pathetically. In a scene that Olivier in his prime couldn't have pulled off, O'Neal stands on a sand dune reading a note that reveals his wife is having an affair with his former mistress's husband. "Oh, no. Oh, God. Oh, no, oh, God," cries O'Neal to the heavens like a cut-rate King Lear. Add that moment to the book of monumental movie embarrassments. Wings Hauser, as a psycho police chief with presidential ambitions; Lawrence Tierney, as O'Neal's homosexual-hating father, and John Bedford Lloyd as O'Neal's bisexual ex-college buddy, overact shamelessly. Unlike O'Neal they seem to be enjoying themselves. The women—Sandlund, the wife; Isabella Rossellini, the mistress, and Frances Fisher, as an ex-porn star turned drug dealer—get to perform oral sex, participate in orgies, lie, cheat, steal and murder. Oh, that Mailer. Even after the audience gets weary and sick of trying to digest this unsavory stew, old man Norman, he just keeps goading along. (R)

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