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Review: Robert Redford and Jane Fonda Are Neighbors With Benefits in ‘Our Souls at Night’


Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in “Our Souls at Night,” directed by Ritesh Batra.

Kerry Brown/Netflix

As gentle as a moth’s wing, as soft and sweet as the flesh of a marshmallow, “Our Souls at Night” chronicles the blossoming of a December-December romance between two neighbors in the fictional prairie town of Holt, Colo. It begins not with a spark of passion but with a sensible, if unusual, proposal. Addie Moore shows up at Louis Waters’s house and asks if he will sleep with her. Addie doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with Louis. She wants to slide under the covers next to him, turn off the bedside lamp and chat quietly until slumber arrives, simulating the easy marital intimacy that the two of them, both long widowed, have learned to live without. Louis, startled by the idea, agrees to think about it.

He and Addie are solid, respectable people of a kind who usually show up in movies to be mocked or sentimentalized. The disappointments and satisfactions they have lived through are etched on their faces, which are also the faces of two very famous movie stars — Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Viewers with long memories or heavy TCM habits will recall that 50 years ago they starred as New York newlyweds in “Barefoot in the Park.” In 1979, they reunited, with a touch more denim, in “The Electric Horseman.” The intervening decades have hardly diminished their charm or their skill, and part of the pleasure of this film, directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), lies in the rediscovery of what wonderful actors they can be, and how good they are together.

“Our Souls at Night,” adapted (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) from Kent Haruf’s final, posthumously published novel, is too cautious and cozy to be a great movie, or even a very interesting one. The music (by Elliot Goldenthal) telegraphs the emotions too precisely, and Mr. Haruf’s wry and subtle plot is mishandled, so that there is both too much dramatic conflict and not quite enough. When Addie and Louis’s grown-up children show up — played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Judy Greer — they drag in some bulky baggage. Each family has a painful event in its past, and each child represents a textbook drawing of the consequences of that pain, rather than a fully embodied, credibly suffering human being.

Luckily, the stars have humanity to spare, and very little left to prove. With her careful diction and a bearing that conveys starchiness and sensuality in perfect, improbable balance, Ms. Fonda turns middle-class maturity into a bewitching form of charisma. Addie’s approach to Louis, a man she has never known that well, is driven less by neediness than by a rational understanding of what she needs. She needs to be less alone.

Louis, for his part, doesn’t mind his solitude. Mr. Redford, who barely uttered a word in “All Is Lost,” at first seems prepared to match that feat here, interrupting what seem like monthlong pauses to mutter, sigh and occasionally deliver a complete sentence. He is one of the great minimalists of American cinema, an actor who can dazzle you by opening the tiniest window onto a character’s inner life. When Louis meets Addie’s young grandson, Jamie (the remarkable Iain Armitage, seen on television in “Big Little Lies” and “Young Sheldon”), the encounter awakens a long-dormant paternal instinct, and also a streak of boyishness.

Addie’s companionship awakens other urges, but “Our Souls at Night” is in no hurry to confirm the hunches of the audience or the suspicions of the town’s nosier citizens. (One of these, a blowhard friend of Louis’s, is played by Bruce Dern, who once upon a time was Tom Buchanan to Mr. Redford’s Jay Gatsby). Since Addie and Louis are already sleeping together, there’s no need to rush into anything.

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