Equal parts gentle character comedy and ramshackle film noir, Nadine is an easy film to like for its relaxed tone and frequent touches of oddball humor. If that were enough to recommend a film, this would be a four star review, unfortunately, writer/director Robert Benton lets that relaxed tone become a little too laid back and the film eventually sputters to a conclusion that is only partially satisfying.

Nadine (Kim Basinger) is a sweet but gullible hairdresser in 1950s Austin, Texas. When she tries to get a local photographer (Jerry Stiller) to relinquish some erotic photos that he convinced her to take, she is forced to hide in his back room when someone enters his studio and murders him. After the killer leaves, she takes a folder that she believes contains her pictures, but she ends up with plans for a new highway to be built in the area. Not realizing the value of the plans, she enlists her soon-to-be ex-husband, Vernon (Jeff Bridges), to help her break in to the studio and find her photos. Of course, everything goes wrong and they end up on the run from the cops and eventually Buford Pope (Rip Torn), a local crime boss who is looking for the highway plans. Amidst this chaos, Vernon schemes to use the highway plans to make his own fortune and Nadine hides the news that she’s pregnant with Vernon’s child.

The cast does a great job of keeping this busy plot afloat by hitting a light tone that keeps them sympathetic even as they find themselves capable of doing some ugly things to get ahead. Basinger is surprisingly good, never letting Nadine become just another empty-headed blonde. Bridges turns in another winning performance, keeping Vernon likable even as he tries to use Nadine to further his own financial goals. More importantly than their individual turns, they have terrific chemistry, making their inevitable reconciliation all the more touching and believable. Even Torn, a man who can play a mean S.O.B. with the best of them, brings a sneaky charm to his villain, making him a man who will jovially threaten a victim with death by rattlesnakes in one scene and honestly agonize over the morality of killing a woman in another.

With a tone that borders on cartoonish for the first two acts, it’s not a surprise when the third act boils down to a series of double-crosses, shoot-outs, and exploding cars, but it’s still disappointing. When Benton tries to suddenly force the climax to peak as a piece of whimsical comedy after the noise and violence, it feels a bit like trying to downshift a manual transmission from fifth to first while driving 80mph down the highway. Chances are, you’re going to crash.

Benton has proved himself to be a reliable writer/director with films like Nobody’s Fool and Bad Company. This time, it feels that he went into production with a script that was a few drafts away from being ready. It’s still an enjoyable film, but I get the feeling that there was a better version possible, if only the time had gone into pursuing it.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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