Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 27, 2021)
After three prior nominations, 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer finally scored Dustin Hoffman his first Oscar. A year earlier, he worked as the lead in 1978’s Straight Time, though the Academy didn’t accord him a nomination for his performance.
After six years in prison, Max Dembo (Hoffman) earns release. This means he needs to answer to parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) as he attempts to adapt to the free world.
Max doesn’t acclimate to life on the outside easily. This leads to a mix of confrontations and problems that eventually send him back to his old ways.
I admit I’ve long found it tough to warm up to Hoffman as an actor, mainly because he rarely seems “organic”. By that I mean it feels like you can sense the acting – Hoffman comes across as someone who can overthink roles and fail to really inhabit them.
I don’t mean that to sound as insulting as it does, and I do generally like Hoffman’s work. At least he largely avoided the degeneration into self-parody that damaged peers Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as the years passed.
As Max, Hoffman offers an understated performance that works fine. He doesn’t play up the character’s potential melodrama and he keeps things honest.
Unfortunately, the screenplay lets down Hoffman and the rest of the excellent cast. In addition to Hoffman and Walsh, we find a tremendous roster of “future notables”, as the movie includes Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton and Kathy Bates.
With so many strong actors, I expect something more involving than the spotty, superficial Time. The story seems episodic and not particularly compelling.
Time adapts a novel by Edward Bunker, a real-life ex-con best-known as “Mr. Blue” in Reservoir Dogs. Given Bunker’s experiences, I would expect more insight into the mind of the habitual criminal, but Max remains a fairly vague, generic character.
Rather than really explore Max’s psyche, the film just feels like a conglomeration of semi-random scenes with little purpose. Oh, the narrative does progress as Max gets deeper and deeper into violent crime, but not much about it comes across as compelling or meaningful.
It doesn’t help that director Ulu Grosbard depicts all the action and drama in a mundane manner. Time rarely finds a way to milk the story’s natural tension and meaning, so we wind up stuck with a mix of not especially compelling scenes that don’t tie together particularly well.
I do like Time as a way to see so many famous actors early in their careers. However, the film itself never gets into a satisfying groove.