Gene Hackman stars in a hit and a miss

It's the best of times and the worst of times for Gene Hackman fans. One new picture shows him at his sensitive best. Another is so lumpy and hokey that no star performance could save it. The winner is ``Twice in a Lifetime,'' this year's best movie on the subject of home and family. It doesn't paint a rosy portrait of domestic life, and it raises more questions than it answers. But its characters are decent people whose failings grow more from the moral uncertainties of their time than from any conscious ill will. And its feelings are as deep and true as any the screen has held in recent memory.

Hackman plays a factory worker in the Seattle suburbs. His daily life is drab, routine, and outwardly contented: work by day, beer with the boys at night, family dinners, and TV football on weekends. Things could go on this way forever, and as far as anyone can see, they will.

On the very stroke of his 50th birthday, though, he meets an attractive woman and they hit it off all too well. He's not the type to leave his wife and home, but he sees this as a last chance to bring some measure of romance and spontaneity back into his life. And she isn't the type to steal a man from his family, but there's an emptiness in her own experience that needs filling. Their secret affair becomes public knowledge, and it's hard to say who has more trouble coping with it: the wife left b y the wayside, the children who thought they knew their father, or the lovers themselves, who must wrestle with profoundly mixed emotions.

This situation could have made for a melodramatic yarn, full of grand gestures and hysteria. To their credit, director Bud Yorkin and writer Colin Welland take a different tack, couching the story in terms as modest as the quiet, middle-class folks whose lives they're exploring. When faced with adversity, the characters of ``Twice in a Lifetime'' don't weave complicated webs of plot and counterplot. They mope, they sulk, they snap at each other. Then they find distraction in a bingo session, a new hair color, a wedding dinner that needs planning. And before you know it, they're better again -- a little worn around the edges, but a dash stronger and a smidgen wiser than before. Life goes on, and ``Twice in a Lifetime'' celebrates that homely fact with quiet sincerity.

For all its virtues, ``Twice in a Lifetime'' does ring false at times. Straining for a no-frills picture of everyday life, the filmmakers hammer too hard on ``uncompromising'' details like drinking scenes and language that ranges from ungrammatical to uncouth. The plot seems forced at times -- the bereft wife doesn't just play bingo, she wins the big prize at a moment calculated for effect -- and taste flies completely out the window when the heroine betakes herself (utterly out of character) to an expl icitly depicted male-stripper show. And despite the strong performances of Gene Hackman and Ellen Burstyn as the main characters, I couldn't help feeling that they never lost their movie-star presence, no matter how self-consciously director Yorkin decked them in ungainly clothes and deposited them in unsightly places.

The movie scores most of its points effectively, though, helped by Yorkin's unassuming camera style and lots of solid acting. Hackman leads the way with his gentle portrayal of the wayward husband, and Ellen Burstyn is right beside him with a courageously unglamorous turn as his wife. Ann-Margret brings her usual touch of class to the ``other woman'' role; Brian Dennehy does the same as Hackman's best friend. Amy Madigan deserves special mention as the most vocal of the younger contingent of characters.

The film is rated R, reflecting four-letter language and the graphically vulgar nightclub scene. `Target'

I wish I had similar tidings about ``Target,'' a new thriller directed by Arthur Penn, whose talent once gave us ``Bonnie and Clyde,'' among other inventive pictures. But this time the news is nearly all bad.

Hackman plays an ordinary guy whose life is so dull that his own family is bored silly. When his wife takes a trip to Europe and is unaccountably kidnapped, he's the last person you'd expect to do something about it. Turns out he's a former CIA agent, though -- and no office worker tied to a desk, but a regular G-man with a license to kill. His son has no sooner gasped a ``Gee, dad, I never knew . . .'' than he's scampering across the Continent on the trail of the nem esis who's snatched his spouse.

This is a perfectly good starting point for a suspense story, but it never goes anywhere. Most of the blame falls on the screenplay, by Howard Berk and Don Petersen, which adds impossible dialogue to implausible situations. Penn fails to transcend his material, as well, or even to get it on the screen without inadvertent comedy. Hackman and his costar, teen heartthrob Matt Dillon, labor mightily with their roles to no avail, as do Josef Sommer and Gayle Hunnicutt. This is one ``Target'' nobody manages t o hit.

The movie has an R rating, reflecting violence and vulgarity. -- 30 --

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