Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) is new to Eunice, Arizona--just moved there with her young son, Jake (Corey Haim), from Modesto, California, and set up home in a rundown, rat-infested farmhouse just outside of town.
Emma's trying to start a horse-boarding business, so she walks around town, putting flyers on windshields until she comes across something peculiar: an antique auto, perfectly preserved, with bumper stickers reading "NO NUKES" and "RE-FOREST AMERICA" inside the windshield.
Emma sticks one of her flyers under the wiper and, suddenly, hears a male voice off-screen. "Lady," the voice says, "you're covering up my causes." Emma asks if she can put the flyer in his window. He wants to see the flyer before agreeing to do so. She walks over and hands it to the man--tall, dark hair, older but not yet elderly, wearing a pharmacist's smock. He regards the piece of paper seriously, glances up at Emma, and nods: "I'm for free enterprise. Put it up."
The man is Murphy Jones (James Garner), who runs an old-fashioned pharmacy, soda fountain and all, and has lived in Eunice all his life. (When asked if he likes the town, he replies, quite sensibly, "Well, I must have, or I wouldn'ta stayed.")
Murphy leads a simple life--takes care of his antique car (looks just like it did in the showroom in Gary, Indiana, in 1927), plays fiddle in a band on the weekends, won't tell anyone how old he is and knows everybody's business but minds his own. Unless someone chooses to mess with him. Bad choice: "When I'm pushed, I shove."
They run into each other regularly and regard one another quietly--first, with curiosity, later with appreciation, finally with interest.
It's those quiet moments where Field and Garner let their eyes do the acting that make Murphy's Romance such a special comedy. No "cute meet." No slapstick. No misunderstandings that lead to complications. Just silent, mature regard.
If Murphy's Romance is about anything aside from, well, romance, it's maturity. Murphy certainly has it, along as the calm that often attends it. Emma aspires to that maturity, that calm, but she's made bad choices in the past--none worse than her ex, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), who shows up out of nowhere.
You can see why Emma fell for the guy: He's handsome, charming, has a nice singing voice and looks good with his shirt off. He's also allergic to hard labor, steals from Emma when (he thinks) she's not looking and cheats at cards, even when only playing for matchsticks. Bobby Jack doesn't have moments of quiet regard--and no discernable maturity.
Even Jake is more grown up than his father. When Emma laments their poverty, Jake walks around town looking for a job--something Bobby Jack would never consider doing. "You sure have had a short childhood," Emma notes.
Bobby Jack's arrival complicates the budding romance between Emma and Murphy--and drags the movie away from its most interesting material, to the point where the title ceases to make much sense. The movie may be called Murphy's Romance, but it's clearly Emma's story. She's the first character we meet and the one we spend the most time with. There's a stretch there where we don't see Murphy at all.
That's a shame, since Garner is at the top of his game here, making his character as comfortable as a well-worn saddle. (There are even a couple of amusing nods to Garner's first TV character, Bret Maverick: He plays poker--and catches Bobby Jack dealing from the bottom of the deck--and instructs Jake on how to wear a cowboy hat, shoving his own hat back on his head, just like Bret would have.)
It takes a lot of effort to make something look that effortless, though, which may explain why Garner only received one Oscar nomination--for Murphy's Romance.
Murphy's late absence from his own romance would be more of a problem if Emma weren't played by Field, someone just as capable of exuding natural, comfortable charm. She and Garner have great chemistry. So do she and Kerwin, who makes Bobby Jack likable in spite of being such an obvious cad.
Hell, Garner and Kerwin have great chemistry, too--Bobby Jack may lack maturity, but he doesn't lack self-confidence, and neither does Murphy. They can go head to head without (literally) butting heads.
Throw in sure-handed direction by Martin Ritt and subtlely gorgeous cinematography by William Fraker (also nominated for an Oscar for his work here), and you get a movie that recognizes that passion can burn slow--and it's not how fast the fire builds, but how warm it makes you feel.
Murphy's Romance builds and warms.