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If Hush weren’t so ploddingly paced, it would rival The Oscar, Mommy Dearest, and Showgirls as an instant camp classic. Even with its longueurs, it’s easily the funniest movie in town. Had TriStar had the smarts to market British writer-director Jonathan Darby’s wacko gothic thriller as a comedy, it might be packing them in instead of unreeling to deserted houses.

Jessica Lange stars as Martha Baring, the most manipulative fading Southern belle since Joan Crawford schemed her way through Queen Bee. Widowed Martha, the matriarch of Kilronan, a failing Kentucky horse-breeding estate, invites her only child Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) to come home from Manhattan for Christmas. He arrives with his orphaned girlfriend, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow). The couple are assigned separate bedrooms—”It’s a Catholic thing,” Jackson helpfully explains —and proceed to demonstrate their discretion by noisily screwing on the mansion’s central landing and leaving Helen’s diaphragm on display in her bathroom like a dish of guest soaps.

Martha, whose sorghum-sweet, country-fried gentility barely conceals a twisted psyche (adultery and murder are only two of the skeletons in her crowded closet), has a secret agenda. She wants to lure Jackson, for whom she appears to harbor unmotherly longings, back to Kilronan. Jackson initially resists, but after returning to New York, where Helen soon finds herself unexpectedly pregnant (guard your diaphragms, ladies!) and the victim of a slasher, the couple decides to abandon the Apple for a Kentucky wedding and the challenge of resurrecting the nearly defunct family business. A few hints dropped by Alice, Martha’s acerbic wheelchair-bound mother-in-law (Nina Foch), gradually confirm Helen’s suspicion that Martha is batty and intent on destroying her marriage, bumping her off, and co-opting the baby.

Nothing in this deliriously misbegotten melodrama rings true. Lange, no dummy, clearly senses this and, in a performance that drag queens will be emulating for decades, has a field day sashaying around the manse in white silk pajamas, cigarette and bourbon in hand, fiddling with her hair and giggling nervously. Foch has a fine time too, zinging malicious one-liners through a benevolent smile. Paltrow plays Helen seriously with dire results. Her limited resources—a slouch and a smirk—are insufficient to redeem a thankless ninny-in-distress role, and she’s physically ill-suited to impersonate an expectant mother. Her tall, slender physique—50 percent legs and 25 percent neck—allows little space to carry a child; padded out to feign pregnancy, she resembles a plucked ostrich. Torpid Schaech, with his aftershave-model profile and caterpillar eyelashes, functions largely as decor.

Making his feature debut and probable swan song, Darby dawdles away the film’s first hour before unleashing a series of insanely over-the-top set pieces. While Jackson is away at a horse show, Martha feeds Helen strawberry shortcake laced with medication used to induce labor in mares. Following a long, agonizing delivery sequence that, excerpted and shown in high school sex-ed classes, could resurrect abstinence, Martha snips the baby’s umbilical cord with sewing shears, spirits the infant away, and leaves the mother to bleed to death. When this strategy fails, she fills a horse syringe with morphine and attempts to dope her daughter-in-law into extinction. I swear I am not making up any of this.

Enjoying Hush requires a perverse sensibility that rejoices when intentions result in lamentably unforeseen consequences. I haven’t laughed so hard since Paula Jones’ makeover.

Novelist Richard Russo and director Robert Benton’s Twilight screenplay, reprocessed Raymond Chandler riddled with an excess of clunky contrivances, lacks distinction but serves as a viable vehicle for an ensemble of superb actors.

Paul Newman plays recovering alcoholic Harry Ross, whose professional (ex-cop, retired private eye) and personal (ruined marriage, deceased child) lives have unraveled. Wounded in an attempt to track down the runaway teenage daughter of veteran movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon), he has been reduced to squatting in a guest room above the Ames’ garage and serving as the family gofer. Jack, who is losing a battle with cancer, sends Harry to deliver a package to a woman in a run-down bungalow court. When he arrives, he instead encounters a dying old man who showers him with gunshots before expiring. This episode leads Harry back to the still-unsolved disappearance of Catherine’s first husband and to reunions with an assortment of former associates, including police-department colleagues James Garner and Stockard Channing.

We’ve been down these mean L.A. streets many times before, and Benton’s themes—idealism vs. cynicism, the corrupting power of celebrity and privilege—are as weather-beaten as Harry. Despite some terse, crackling exchanges, the dialogue tends to be overly explicit, unnecessarily underlining the characters’ motives and the screenwriters’ concerns. But these weaknesses are offset by a gallery of expert performances. At 73, Newman projects an undiminished masculine authority that is enhanced by autumnal vulnerability and economy of expression. In an atypical glamour role—in some shots, she’s a ringer for the mature Ava Gardner—Sarandon balances candor and seductive evasiveness. Hackman, our era’s Spencer Tracy, is, as always, effortlessly assured. Channing exudes down-to-earth charm as Harry’s erstwhile flame, and Garner, thick-waisted and careworn, proves as reliable as ever, though

his cameo billing telegraphs his character’s “surprise” implication in the convoluted plot’s denouement.

Benton’s career, which began so promisingly with his (and David Newman’s) Bonnie and Clyde screenplay and his remarkable 1972 directorial debut, Bad Company, has degenerated into such disappointments as the suspenseless, pseudo-Hitchcockian Still of the Night and the heavy-handed comic mystery Nadine. Collaborating with Newman and Russo on 1994’s character-driven Nobody’s Fool revitalized him, and the experience inspired the trio’s reconvergence in Twilight. The film’s poetic title simultaneously evokes its end-of-the-road characters, its shadowy visual style, and the venerability of its cast. (Sarandon, a radiant 51, is the youngest of the principals.) A half-century from now, will moviegoers as affectionately embrace a project teaming, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alicia Silverstone, and Brad Pitt? I won’t be around to find out, but I doubt it. CP