“I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap,” declares Kevin Costner’s fading minor-league catcher Crash Davis in a famous scene in Bull Durham, the movie that kicked off writer-director Ron Shelton’s erratic career as a literate, sports-and-sex-obsessed male apologist. Nearly three decades later, his characters are still existentially preoccupied with scoring (in both senses of the word), but the mojo is gone; Just Getting Started, his first theatrical feature since the forgotten Hollywood Homicide in 2003, is dramatically and comically impotent.
Its protagonist, Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), is a former New Jersey mob lawyer with a lifelong popularity complex (it goes back to losing a sixth-grade school election, per his self-analysis) who went into federal witness protection and found a new life as the manager, resident Santa Claus impersonator, and neighborhood Casanova of a luxurious Palm Springs retirement community called Villa Capri, where he beds a rotating harem of widows and divorcées in between golf and poker games. Into Duke’s personal fiefdom of over-compensation come two new arrivals: Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texan with bundles of money and a murky past, and Suzie (Rene Russo), an auditor for the corporation that owns Villa Capri.
There have been worse premises for retirement-age boys-will-be-boys comedies, most of which seem to star or co-star Freeman—Last Vegas, Going In Style, and so on. But plotting has never been a major concern for Shelton, and Just Getting Started is a shambles, its title both intentionally and unintentionally ironic; at different points, it strains to be an AARP sex farce, a love triangle, and an action-comedy (complete with incongruous car chases and explosions), with painfully arthritic consequences. (It’s also set at Christmastime, leading to several feeble visual gags about southern California’s un-wintery weather.) The model, as with all of Shelton’s movies, seems to be the laid-back situational camaraderie of Howard Hawks. Except that Just Getting Started looks like a cheap sitcom—albeit a cheap sitcom where characters keep name-dropping Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Cummings. (“The poets,” to quote The Boy Next Door.)
One can only rely on Shelton’s Baby Boomer literary pretensions for the occasional pseudo-Updike-an statement, as when Leo explains to Suzie that he and Leo aren’t competing for her, but for the right to woo her: “These are fine distinctions that men make.” Despite a guttering self-awareness about male insecurity and gamesmanship, his characters’ limply defined personalities never generate conflict or tension; it comes externally, from some vengeful gangsters imported from another, even cheaper film. Leo and Duke seem to like each other one moment and hate each other’s guts the next; the result doesn’t bring to mind a begrudging friendship born out of competition, but a film that’s been put together at random, possibly with an hour missing. But who’d want more of this creaky spectacle?