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Hard Promises
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by Jack Sommersby

"Perfectly-Fine 'Promises'"
3 stars

While it had a very unimpressive theatrical run (the lack of starpower and a limited distribution), it's nothing special but better than a lot of romantic movies chock-full of bathetic bathos and lousy humor.

After having given intense performances as a doggedly-determined, revenge-seeking Secret Service agent in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. and an intellectually-brilliant, psychologically-fragile FBI agent in Michael Mann's Manhunter, a much-looser William Petersen offers up an immensely appealing turn in the amiable comedy-drama Hard Promises. He plays Joey Coalter, a drifter who loves experiencing the world, seeing new places, working different jobs, with only his beat-up car and the clothes on his back as actual possessions. Working a nine-to-five job would be as detrimental to his emotional well-being as a dose of Kryptonite would be to Superman; it's not that he thinks he's better than the average Everyman perfectly content with a routine life by rote, only that he's wired completely different -- he just doesn't see the point in settling for one thing in one place when there's so much out there to explore: the mere thought of taking off for someplace new sets his adrenaline running like there's no tomorrow. He's in the middle of relaying some of his adventures to some fellow cowhands at a dude ranch in Wyoming when he gets a letter that reveals quite a lot to the audience: that not only has he got a wife and young daughter back in his small hometown who he sends his paychecks to, but that his wife is divorcing him and is all set to remarry a meek and meager accountant who the both of them grew up with. Joey hightails it back home where he's famous for his nomadic ways; upon arrival, he's told by his friends that he stayed away too long this time and that he's got no chance of winning back his spouse, Christine (Sissy Spacek); and being the immature, impulsive guy he is, he wastes no time in punching out Christine's fiancee Walt (Brian Kerwin) at first sight in the downtown square. He confides in his best friend Pinky (Jeff Perry), who's become the exact opposite of Joey, a dedicated family man who's settled into an unexciting supervisor position at the town mill; while he dearly loves his friend and is envious of his freewheeling lifestyle, Pinky is somewhat resentful because he knows Joey doesn't really respect him because he's no longer the wild friend-in-tow he used to be. And Christine, whose closest confident is Pinky's sharp-tongued wife Dawn (Mare Winningham), finds herself conflicted between Walt, who's loving and dependable but unexciting, and Joey, who's irresponsible and unreliable but sexy and innately good-hearted. The movie entails Joey trying to win back the woman he's loved since childhood, and Christine having to make a difficult choice not just for herself but for the good of her daughter who absolutely loves her father but has become frustrated at his endless promises to be around more that haven't had the greatest history of being kept. The main interest is whether Joey will find it within himself to finally mature or whether he'll stay true to his born nature not to tie himself down to any single place which he knows would leave him miserable. (In an amusing scene, when he grudgingly applies for a job at the mill, he has the look of someone being forced to walk the plank.)

I can't really aver that Hard Promises is particularly complex or impressively made. The screenwriter, Julie Selbo, is making her feature-film debut here after a brief stint in television, and it shows in that more than a few scenes are predictable and climax out more out of a desire to appease thirty-second attention spans than due to measured dramatic arcs. A lot of things get resolved in too pat a manner, and at about the midway mark you have a pretty fair idea who Christine is going to choose. Also, the director, Martin Davidson, whose previous efforts include rather mediocre fare like Hero at Large and Eddie and the Cruisers, isn't the most astute technician: though the first-rate cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak gives the proceedings a lovely golden sheen, the camerawork isn't really all that expressive -- this isn't the kind of Hollywood product that emanates "the joy of making cinema," to put it mildly. But, all in all, the movie works. The texture of small-town dailinesss is well-etched in that you really sense the deep-seated community among these people, which is essential in contrasting this with Joey's preference for rootless unpredictability and penchant for nonconformity. The character of Christine is strong-willed and hasn't been made a cipher to make way for so Joey and Walt can "fight over" her; she speaks her mind and doesn't take any guff, and yet Spacek is still able to convince that Christine is still susceptible to Joey's incorrigible charm. In a less-showy role, Kerwin is able to sustain interest and plausibility (he actually played a character much like Joey opposite Sally Field in the superior Murphy's Romance), and while Winningham tries too hard at being plucky, Perry serves up some touching gravitas, especially when finally telling Joey off during a drunken rant that what he does takes guts as opposed to Joey running away from his own responsibilities. But the main plus is Petersen's excellent, persuasive performance in a rather tricky role filled with trapdoors which this stellar thespian deftly sidesteps. Joey could have been an abrasive lout who we'd have very little patience for; he's selfish and egotistical and generally indifferent to other people's feelings. But in addition to being considerably charismatic and effortlessly engaging, Petersen gets inside this man and tactfully conveys a deep-down insecurity that Joey hides with a brash demeanor as if nothing can ever get him down; he's made it a habit of blowing off his shortcomings as both a husband and a father, and Petersen lets us see that though Joey loves his wife he should've never had a wife in the first place -- marriage has been more of an abstraction than an actualization to him. Yet when the script requires Joey to change, Petersen expertly charts the man's emotional progression with modulation so we can believe it -- it's not an uncouth one-eighty, and we really do feel we're witnessing a three-dimensional adult character finally growing up. Petersen's terrific, and though Hard Promises isn't nearly up to his level, it's acceptable-enough entertainment that goes down easily enough for a Sunday-afternoon viewing.

You could do worse, believe me.

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originally posted: 05/19/11 05:17:12
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User Comments

11/27/05 Jack Sommersby Nothing more than a passable TV movie, but Petersen is phenomenally appealing. 3 stars
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  31-Jan-1992 (PG)
  DVD: 15-Nov-2005



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