Despite the pure 80s-ness of the synths, I cannot help but be charmed by Carol King’s vocals in the opening track to go along with an entire score she composed for this film. It introduces an understated tale of a young divorced mother (Sally Field) and her son (Corey Haim) who are setting up camp and a new life for themselves. It’s a real fixer-upper they’ve acquired, epitomized by Sally Field chucking her boot at a rat as it scurries back into the shadows.
However, she is defined by a do-it-yourself mentality — the of kind quality we admire in her within the first few scenes. In spite of a lack of capital, they make the shell of a ranch into a real home that’s livable even as they are still trying to come to terms with the alien community they now find themselves in.
In many ways, the rural Arizona town proves to be an analogous slice of Middle America with much of what Martin Ritt captured over the course of his career from the Huds to the Norma Raes of the world. This particular one has a local druggist named Murphy (James Garner), a widower who drives an antique car with a windshield plastered with a couple of his prime causes.
In his first interaction with Mrs. Emma Moriarty, he describes his home impeccably with four words, “Small, warm, and nosy.” It becomes instantly familiar. What we have on our hands resonates with me for the simple fact I recognize this small town. Not because I lived in it — not by a long shot — but I’ve spent time in such places just passing through or visiting family. We see at least one old friend in Charles Lane, the chipper elderly man who has found love again at the ripe young age of 89.
Otherwise, Murphy is quite the local celebrity. It seems like every middle-aged lady is having him over for bridge or dinner — something nice like that — so much so that most of his evenings are booked up. He’s a generally hot commodity and people like him. Emma soon sees his charm too. She struggles to get a loan at the bank to jumpstart her business to train and board horses because she’s a woman. The town still holds to those archaic traditions.
Though he won’t give her money outright, Murphy does bless her in more subtle ways. First, by introducing her into the folds of the tight-knit community and also directing business her way — starting with the fine horse he buys at a local auction. It’s in these scenes Garner and Field build a rapport that feels about as genuine as they come. While not necessarily romantic, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry continues to grow. They care about one another.
The most obvious complication in the story occurs when Emma’s former husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) comes back to town. It’s as much to mooch money off his former spouse as it is to see their son whom he has all but neglected.
The fact the casting seems poor might contribute to the fact that Field is simply such a mismatch for her husband. They have little in common as far as interest or vision or overall drive. He has zilch — prizing partying and good times over any type of breadwinning integrity. If anything she supports his leech-like ways.
A bit of Bret Maverick starts coming to the surface again, most memorably over a poker game where Garner coolly calls Bobby out to the porch to have a talk with him. He’s also not too interested in the gory human hamburger, monster movies at the local movie theater that coincidentally enthrall Bobby. This is coming from a man who hasn’t watched a movie since The Duke died. When he’s had enough he walks out and sits on a bench to chew the fat.
As ludicrous as it seems, a bit of a tug of war begins. Even as Murphy feels a tad too old to be courting Emma, Bobby Jack has no right to her based on his lack of character. The older gentleman gets his new acquaintances into the Elk’s Club for Bingo night. There are ensuing feuds between Murphy and his jealous rival on the dance floor defusing themselves through comedy. Bobby’s renewed advances on Emma far from being passionate conclude with sneezing in the hay. Then, things take an even weirder turn when the loafing ex-husband gets his own visitor.
Ultimately, it is a birthday part providing a stage to look over a life and give thanks for an existence full of relationships. We’re back to the small-town atmosphere again. The near lackadaisical pacing plays a part in it too.
In an age of R-rated comedies, action films, and whatever else, Murphy’s Romance is in danger of being railroaded by its more ostentatious competition. But the fact there is no gratuitous sex or violence remains its ace in the hole. Instead, it relies wholly on the grace of its two stars who more than oblige.
Truthfully, in my mind, there would be little reason to watch this slight story without Sally Field and James Garner. The fact Brando was initially wanted for the part is nearly laughable. He couldn’t pull it off like his Sayonara (1957) costar and the chemistry with Sally Field would not have gelled in the same exquisite manner.
Field lent such peppy candor to parts all the way back to her Gidget days, which saw her bloom into a quality talent with perennially accessible charm. It’s important for Garner to be just as approachable — a man who often asserted he never wanted anyone to catch him acting — he’s so natural, making it all look easy. We like him for it.
Their conversations amble along — the way real people interact — people who have made mistakes and deal with them in the normal way. People who manage kinship through an invitation for dinner there or a random act of kindness here. They harbor jealousy, don’t always say what they’re feeling, and their love language is connotated through quality time more than anything else.
Murphy’s Romance is charming for precisely this understatement. Tact is something so often lacking in this hypercharged world of ours. The romance mentioned in the title is warranted but some viewers might be taken aback by how it exerts itself. There is an underlying decency and a tenderness to it all.