Ernest Borgnine as "Rex Page" and Barry corbin as "Walker." (Indican Pictures )
A playful paean to a movie genre and a prolific career, Ernest Borgnine's valedictory feature is a spaghetti western with a heavy helping of cheese. "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez" won't be more than a footnote to his life's work, but it is evidence that even at 94, and even in flat surroundings, the late actor possessed undeniable screen magnetism.
As with Will Ferrell's "Casa de Mi Padre" this year, the wonderfully spoofy opening-credits sequence promises more genre subversion than the film delivers. Writer-director Elia Petridis' tongue-in-cheek nods to cinematic archetypes hit their targets but are too transparent, and too gentle, to pack a punch.
Borgnine, who died in July, stars as Rex, a retired radio DJ in Toluca Lake who, to the aggravation of his wife (June Squibb) and daughter (Dale Dickey), remains determined to launch a movie career. (An unseen Robert Morse plays his agent.) Only his young granddaughter (Audrey P. Scott) fully supports Rex's western obsession, and the unsentimental chemistry between them is the strongest element of the film.
In the unlikely high-noon setting of a nursing home, captured in good-looking widescreen 35mm, Rex gets to realize his dream of being the hero of a western. The place is run by the mean-as-mud Walker (Barry Corbin) — substitute motorized chair and juice box for horse and whiskey — and his henchman, Dr. Dominguez (Tony Plana), who would twirl his mustache if it were longer.
The scenario, mildly amusing when it isn't silly or sappy, turns Rex into a spokesman for the mistreated Latino staff, who breathlessly hang on every detail of his mid-1970s encounter with Vicente Fernández (the real-life "Sinatra of Mexico" doesn't appear in the movie). The script may falter, but Borgnine never does in Rex's transition from grouch to mensch.
"The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez." No MPAA rating. 1 hour, 39 minutes. At Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.