Robert Benton’s romance Nadine grabs your attention early. Beautiful nail salon employee Nadine (Kim Basinger) visits a somewhat shady photographer (Jerry Stiller) for whom she has posed. It’s 1955 in the only sane spot in Texas (Austin, that is), and Mrs. Hightower would like those pictures returned. They’re of the rather naughty variety, taken in the hopes that Hugh Hefner might notice and rocket her to stardom as a model. Now, Mrs. Hightower is having second thoughts—finding out you’re pregnant will do that to a gal—so she pleads to buy back the pictures. Ben Stiller’s dad agrees after some coaxing, but as he is retrieving the Hightower portfolio, he meets the unfriendly end of a butcher knife. Nadine takes the Hightower envelope and Hightails it outta there.
This is an odd way to begin a love story, n’est-ce pas? Nadine finds Benton returning to the stomping ground of his 1977 masterpiece, The Late Show. That is, he once again crafts a story about relationships punctuated by bursts of sudden violence. Benton’s approach here is less kitchen sink and more concentrated than The Late Show, but Nadine is not without similar quirky charms. It takes its time building its characters through their interactions, body language and dialogue. These folks are still in love with each other, yet every time they’re positioned to rekindle the flames, danger intervenes. Benton treats suspense as coitus interruptus. And while it might seem a tad odd that these regular people are so adept at gunplay (and there’s a lot of it), one must remember that this is Texas, where babies are born shooting off their own umbilical cords.
At the beauty salon, Nadine is confronted by her boss, Vera (Gwen Verdon) regarding Nadine’s reluctance to tell Vernon (Jeff Bridges) he’s going to be a daddy. The soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Vernon Hightower has bigger problems: Her stolen envelope contains pictures of highway plans, a far sexier and more profitable item than nudie pictures. Nadine doesn’t care; her mind is fixated on her original goal. So when Vernon shows up at the beauty salon, demanding signed divorce papers and flaunting his new “fiancée” Miss Pecan Queen 1947 (a delightfully trashy Glenne Headley), Nadine tricks him into helping her break into the photography studio.
The police arrive, and Vernon makes a daring getaway in Nadine’s car. This turns Nadine on something fierce. She’s never seen Vernon like this, so adept and so cunning. Until this moment, she’s thought of him as the hapless loser who runs the Blue Bonnet Restaurant, a bar whose location in the middle of nowhere contributes to its lackluster business. Vernon is so wrapped up in his bar that Nadine not only wants a divorce, but she wants a Cadillac in exchange for her signature on the divorce documents. Vernon can’t afford a Cadillac—and it’s apparent he can’t afford Miss Pecan Queen 1947, either. But once he sees those highway plans, he thinks he’ll be on easy street. Vernon involves his dolt of a 3rd cousin once removed (Jay Patterson) in a scheme to buy some of the land along the proposed route. Selling it back to the gov’ment will yield Vernon enough to buy a huge neon sign to draw business to The Blue Bonnet.
What Vernon really needs is a new location. It would be cheaper, and much less dangerous. The people who killed Nadine’s photographer were looking for those highway plans, and they know Nadine has them. Led by Buford Pope (Rip Torn), these guys are as pigheaded as Nadine when fixated on a goal. Pope sends his henchman Floyd to do his dirty work, kidnapping Nadine and beating the snot out of Vernon. Tossed together in peril, Nadine and Vernon rebuild their relationship despite being harassed by both Pope and Miss Pecan Queen 1947. The former shows up whenever things threaten to get mushy; the latter shows up at the most inconvenient time and derails the Hightower’s post-coital reconciliation.
Nadine uses its criminal situation as metaphor for the trials and tribulations of every marriage. Life is always game for giving out monkey wrenches when one really just needs a screw. In the film’s best sequence, Nadine and Vernon attempt to escape from Pope’s henchmen by crawling between the attics of two building on a shaky ladder. Nadine goes first—she’s always been more headstrong than Vernon—and the worst possible moment on that ladder yields a proclamation of love from both parties. “If I don’t make it,” Vernon tells Nadine as the ladder starts to give under his weight, “remember that I love you.” “I’m not through with you yet, Vernon Hightower!” Nadine responds.
Torn is all bemused menace (“You’re really starting to get on my nerves,” he tells Nadine after his fourth run-in with her) and Bridges is all aw-shucks, shit-kickin’ country boy charming. But Nadine belongs to Kim Basinger, who supplements her stunning beauty with a stubborn streak and a believable toughness. (Watch how she handles the rattlesnake Torn’s henchmen leave as a warning.) She and Bridges both show a vulnerable side that makes us root for their reunion, and both alternate between playing the hero and the damsel in distress. Their easy chemistry somehow compliments the director’s penchant for jump scares in a love story. The first appearance of Floyd at Nadine’s comes after a lovely scene where she tries to win back Vernon, and it damn near made me jump out of my chair.
The two words Benton chooses to end Nadine with carry so much romantic weight. He uses them not only to underline Nadine’s resilience but also to highlight Vernon’s realization that he doesn’t need that signature on those divorce papers. A partner in both love and crime is all that any man needs to live a happy, fulfilling life. That, and an ability to drive backwards at 90 miles an hour while evading the cops.