Picks and Pans Review: Nuts

updated 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

In her first film since 1983's sweet-natured Yentl, Barbra Streisand plays a rowdy, foul-mouthed hooker battling to prove she is mentally fit to stand trial for killing one of her Johns in self-defense. For deeper, darker reasons, her parents would rather that she be shipped off to a psycho ward. Right; Nuts is not a musical. But Streisand belts out the role as if it were one of her showstoppers—say, Don't Rain on My Parade. She's always been able to give even trite love-and-pain lyrics a live-wire urgency. She does the same here in a whopping star performance, funny and ferocious, that cuts through most of the movie's moldy courtroom melodramatics. Adapted from Tom Topor's 1980 Broadway play, the plot is a modern gloss on the entertaining women-under-fire trash that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did nearly half a century ago, back before Barbra was even born. Streisand tears into it greedily. And there's no one to stand in her way. How could anyone? As producer, she has a right to call the shots. She may share her star billing with Richard Dreyfuss, as the public defender on the case, but his contribution—though deftly done—is that of a supporting role. There is a lot of shamelessly enjoyable mugging from a cast of old troupers including James Whitmore as an exasperated judge, Eli Wallach as a quack shrink and Maureen Stapleton and Karl Maiden as the defendant's mother and stepfather. The spotlight nevertheless remains resolutely fixed on Streisand. To direct, she cleverly hired Martin Ritt, who guided Sally Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae. Many of Hollywood's top actresses—Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange—also produce their films. But Streisand, in her off-hours, also managed to find time to compose the Nuts sound track. Sure, she is given to grandstanding. But her wicked zest keeps you riveted. Whether she's punching out the family lawyer or shocking the court with her sex-for-sale rates, Streisand shows a robust comic toughness. No fair blabbing those dark reasons that drove this educated divorcée to prostitution and manslaughter. But Streisand doesn't have to fake her rooting interest in this demanding, overbearing character. She seems to understand the woman's point of view: As long as you respect her right to act according to her conscience you don't have to like her. That's why it's hard not to like Barbra Streisand in Nuts. With disarming candor and wit, she has actually made a hymn to herself as a pain in the butt. (R)

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