Moderately insightful and sensitive but plagued by a tendency toward superficiality, T.R. Baskin is an intimate character study that puts a fresh spin on the old story of a young person experiencing culture shock by moving from a small town to a big city. Rather than portraying its protagonist as a naif overwhelmed by sophisticates, T.R. Baskin presents a preternaturally wise individual disappointed to learn that sharing her life with metropolitan folks isn’t the revelation she expected. Candice Bergen, delivering one of her best early performances, is almost too well cast in the leading role, since she’s so beautiful and worldly that it’s hard to believe she doesn’t thrive among the cosmopolitan set.
Written and produced by Peter Hyams, who later enjoyed a long career as a genre-cinema auteur, and directed with characteristic grace by Herbert Ross, the movie begins with traveling salesman Jack (Peter Boyle) arriving in Chicago and running into a college acquaintance, Larry (James Caan). Jack asks if his pal knows any ladies who might keep him company, so Larry suggests T.R. Baskin (Bergen). A phone call later, she shows up at Jack’s hotel-room door. Jack believes he’s hit the jackpot until T.R. challenges him verbally, revealing she’s his intellectual superior by a mile. Performance anxiety ensues, so they talk instead of trysting, and their conversation triggers flashbacks detailing T.R.’s early experiences in Chicago. After leaving home for a new life, T.R. took a mindless data-entry job and tried double-dating with a co-worker who was obsessed with landing a wealthy husband. That got boring fast. Eventually, T.R. met Larry, who seemed intellectual and tender at first blush. How their relationship unfolded, and how that course of events led her to Jack’s hotel room, is the heart of the picture and a small statement about the casual cruelty of modern life.
T.R. Baskin unfurls like an observational novella, with copious dialogue revealing characters’ personalities as a larger sketch of city life emerges through the accumulation of detail. Easily the most interesting aspect of the storytelling is the quippy dialogue that Hyams provides for the title character. “I want to die young and neat,” she says. “I don’t want to die old and sloppy.” Or, more tellingly, “I just wish everybody else didn’t look like they know exactly what they’re doing.” T.R. Baskin is frustrating because Hyams and Ross ignore so many obvious opportunities to dig deeper, but excellent acting fills in some of the blanks. Boyle infuses his role with surprising warmth, and Caan conveys important nuances that can’t be discussed without spoiling the story. Bergen, of course, carries much of the picture on her shoulders, and she’s terrific, complementing her innate comic timing with the soulfulness that precious few of her early roles allowed her to display.
T.R. Baskin: GROOVY