Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 26, 2003 1:24 am 
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Family gathering

It isn't the least bit fair to call "It Runs in the Family" a "vanity project."

With three generations, Kirk and Michael and Cameron Douglas, and Douglas by marriage Diana all in it, the movie is certainly a family project, and despite the direction of the great Fred Schepisi, whose "Six Degrees of Separation" was a miracle of acting and editing, it somehow doesn't ever really soar. But there is nothing, but nothing, "vanity" about it except that the rich New York Jewish family, the Grombergs, whom the Douglases play, live in splendor -- but that's certainly not a stretch for the actual Douglases. It just makes their family problems a bit more posh than most people's.

What we see of this family is no cause for vanity, and our admiration or indulgence are not sought, only our sympathy. This is a family of successful lawyers. But dad (Mitchell) has had a stroke, and his son (Alex), who has refused to become a partner, is torn between profit and pro bono cases, loyalty and infidelity, and has none of the brass or verve of the high powered Michael Douglas of "Wall Street." (Michael's performance isn't particularly strong here either, but the other Douglases' all are.) He and his therapist wife Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) have two kids nine years apart. Mitchell's wife is played by Michael's actual mother, the regal Diana Douglas, whom Kirk divorced in 1951 but has remained good friends with.

The kids in the family are not showing great promise. The young 12-year old son Eli is a bit odd -- or at least inarticulate. Much is made of his wordlessly presenting a spreadsheet to ask for a raise in his weekly allowance, and for his not particularly wanting to discuss sex with his parents or older brother. But this is one of the places where the humane and comprehensive screenplay fails to convince completely. Is that really so odd? -- or is Eli just a budding accountant? As Eli, the very forthright and self-possessed Rory Culkin, from another famous acting family, seems too self-contained and sure of himself to be seen as truly having problems. His main problem seems to be that he's 12.

Cameron Douglas, Michael's real life son, whose acting experience is chiefly from a TV series, is Asher, the 21-year-old "laid back" son, a loveable loser who deals some pot and misses a lot of his classes but knows how to party and is a good deejay. Asher is blowing his life for now, but the buoyant and physical Cameron is fun to watch as he throws all his passion and enthusiasm into his first significant screen role. As Asher, he's full of life and slouchy charm and it's not so far fetched that a nice girl would get interested in him, despite his loser qualities. Again here, though, the writer has not developed the subtleties suggested by the plot. The movie tries to show us too much about too many of the characters to provide any with full development.

Mitchell, Alex, and Asher all give advice to each other and to Eli, never very effectively. They're full of brash posturing toward to their next of kin but lacking in real conviction. But somehow, the movie tells us, this is a way of showing affection. It's okay that they only pretend to know the answers. The story never works out any of the problems it creates for its characters or fully develops them, but it does succeed in its purpose of being a story about family and about honest acceptance of human frailty.

Kirk as the aging patriarch, who loses his wife and then his demented brother, brings us in for some embarrassment (his scenes are the most cornball sentimental), but you can't help admiring the 86-year-old actor's enormous pluck. After his stroke he has sprung back and though he waddles feebly on his jogs around the Central Park reservoir and doesn't talk so good anymore, he certainly can still deliver his lines with a vigor one wishes Michael had mustered here. There's a kind of strength and simplicity about the aging Kirk Douglas that seems very close to real. Whether his blustery authority mixed with emotional distance is true to the man himself, it's believable in his scenes with his wife and son.

One aspect -- also arguably anti-vanity, yet both proud and truthful, is that the Douglases are playing what they really are, a successful Jewish family, and not the sanitized non-ethnic Americans that Hollywood required when Kirk was in his prime. And because the movie shows a seder and funeral and identifies the family with Jewish ritual, we do get a sense of family life as a part of cultural tradition.

Mitchell's wife Rebecca gets upset when she discovers women's undies in his pocket that came from a scene at a free food project where a fellow volunteer (Sarita Chudoury) has the hots for him (nothing subtle about this encounter). This sequence is poorly developed and it isn't clear, since Mitchell neither defends nor incriminates himself, why Rebecca gets into such a tailspin. Ms. Peters is nothing but earnest and intense. She can engender little sympathy nor convey much sense of an active intelligence.

There are way more crises than any family could handle in this short span of time: marital problems, two deaths of elders, a child who runs off during a school function, the older boy flunking out of school and arrested for drugs, his first serious love affair ruined, the patriarch facing "a few good years left" alone. And none of it's resolved. But though the shortcomings in character development may be a distinct weakness in the movie, the lack of resolution is not in itself a fault. The real fault, and what keeps this from being one of Fred Schepisi's best efforts, is that the writing isn't focused enough and turns maudlin too often. It's fine to jerk a few tears, but for a comedy "It Runs in the Family" is too soft hearted and soft headed. Maybe in the end all that really mattered was for Kirk and Michael finally to make a movie together after all these years, and the process created too many good vibes to allow for edginess or wit. But let's not call that vanity. Let's call it love.

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