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MOVIE REVIEW : Western Jokes for City Folks : 'Maverick' Shoots for the Hip--a Bit Too Much

May 20, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Maverick" is smart-alecky without being very smart. It's full of spoofy, har-dee-har-har ribaldries--this film practically winks at you. As sophisticated Western comedies go, it's somewhere between "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang." Crammed with such big-name crowd-pleasers as Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner, "Maverick" reaches for that Feel Good feeling. It settles for Feel OK.

The most damning criticism ever leveled against "Butch Cassidy"--like "Maverick" scripted by William Goldman--is that it was a "Beverly Hills Western." This also describes "Maverick." It's proudly inauthentic, twinkling with high-gloss production values that make even the dust look like something you'd buy at Bijan. Watching it is like taking in a deluxe window display of hand-me-downs.

As Maverick, who spends most of the movie trying to con his way into a high-stakes poker game, Gibson is still in his hyperhectic mode from the "Lethal Weapon" films--perhaps because Richard Donner is once again the director. Gibson tumbles and scampers and issues double- and triple-takes to everything from riverboat gamblers to rattlesnakes. He's ingratiatingly and, finally, exhaustingly, goofy. He seems to be simultaneously impersonating the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Actors form-fitted for heroism often go a little blooey when they're encouraged to act comically anti-heroic; they bounce off the audience's expectations of glamour. Gibson manages to look glamorous anyway in "Maverick," and that's part of the joke--just as it was with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy." But it's not the most ample of jokes. Gibson, for all his handsomeness and hearty frivolity, is playing down to us.

Not that Maverick is a role to be played with the gravity of a Geronimo. James Garner's Bret Maverick on the original ABC-TV show, which ran from 1957 to 1962, was already pretty sporty and flip. So was the series. (A memorable parody of "Bonanza" featured Jim Backus as the baron of the Subrosa cattle ranch, with sons Moose, Henry and Small Paul.) Garner is in the new movie as lawman Zane (Coop) Cooper, and he gives the film a pedigree--and some class. (Garner walked out on the series in 1960, two years before its demise, so his appearance here is a double-edged "tribute.") In this whirligig of off-the-shelf gags and celebrity clowning, Garner's wry harrumphiness goes a long way.

Jodie Foster is playing Annabelle Bransford, a siren who spends the entire movie trying to out-con Maverick. She's the kind of woman who bats goo-goo eyes at her man while she lifts his wallet. Now how often have you seen that gag before? Foster tries to ventilate the tiresomeness by letting us know she's too smart to be playing someone this smart-dumb. Her performance has an only-kidding coyness that's entirely in keeping with the entire movie--alas. It's integrity of a sort. Foster knows what kind of movie this is, and she at least has the courage of her own inauthenticity. What else can she do when she's required to play a character who keeps misstating Maverick's name? She repeatedly calls him Burt instead of Bret--har har.

The tiredness of the jokes in "Maverick" is supposed to be terminally hip. We're supposed to enjoy our familiarity with all the cliches. For people who enjoy having their junk memories jogged--and coddled--this kiddie connoisseurship can pass for a good time. When Maverick puts his ear to the ground as if to listen for distant hoofbeats and then lays down for a nap, we can see the gag coming a mile away, just as we can anticipate the shenanigans at the gaming tables and the horsing around with a tribal chief (Graham Greene) who dresses Maverick up as a bespangled Native American.

Goldman and Donner don't draw on Western traditions in order to tweak them into new life; they're having too much fun giggling over the corpses of old routines. Their uninspiration has above-it-all airs. They showcase a rogue's gallery of familiar faces from old Westerns and from the country-Western music world, ranging from the glorious Dub Taylor to Denver Pyle and Waylon Jennings, but that's all these people remain: faces. (James Coburn fills out smartly a somewhat larger role as the ringleader of the poker championship.) The filmmakers have no feeling for the traditions they're sending up, and the lack gives "Maverick" a hollow facetiousness.

Maverick the high-stakes gambler is proud of being spineless. He's fast on the draw, but he always opts to run from a fight. In a way, he's the perfect protagonist for this high-stakes film, which also flaunts its flimsiness.

* MPAA rating: PG, for mild sensuality, language and some Western action. Times guidelines: It includes bar fights, street fights, mild cussing and even milder coupling.

'Maverick'

Mel Gibson: Bret Maverick

Jodie Foster: Annabelle Bransford

James Garner: Marshal Zane Cooper

Alfred Molina: Angel

A Warner Bros. release of an Icon production in association with Donner/Shuler-Donner Prods. Director Richard Donner. Producers Bruce Davey, Richard Donner. Screenplay by William Goldman. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Stuart Baird. Costumes April Ferry. Music Randy Newman. Production design Tom Sanders. Set decorator Lisa Dean. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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