Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Vincent Patrick from his novel. Photography, Andrzej Bartkowski. Editing, Andrew Mondshein. Production design, Philip Rosenberg. Music, Cy Coleman. Music director, Sonny Kompanek. Cast: Sean Connery, Dustin Hofman, Matthew Broderick, et al. A Tri-Star release. 113 minutes. Rated R (adult situations, general immorality.)
Sidney Lumet is an excellent director of the urban scene, and especially strong at portraying the jungle of New York City ("Network," "Serpico"). He begins "Family Business" with an array of interrelated ethnicities and the old trick of showing a part of the city as a village where everyone knows everyone else, while zooming in on three generations of one family: Jessie (Connery) the 65-year old grandfather, a postwar immigrant who is a free soul, barroom brawler, con-man and retired thief; his son Vito (Hoffman), an ex-thief gone straight who has made a fortune in wholesale meats; his grandson Adam (Broderick), an ace student of molecular biology who has dropped out of M.I.T. just months before getting his Master's degree.

Adam has come up with a plan for a scientific-industrial heist suggested by one of his former professors. This will net one million dollars. Grandpa is ready to go, but dad Vito, alienated from Jessie, takes a lot of convincing--even though the wholesale meat business is not the most kosher of occupations. At first, flamboyant Jessie , quiet Vito and soul-searching Adam menace the viewer with that tired old movie cliche of lovable, colorful characters. In a short second stage one begins to hope that, for a change, the movie will get away with using lovable, colorful characters. Soon however, this and the rest begin to disintegrate.

For one thing, we have to keep unscrambling ethnicities. Connery (a Scotsman) is supposed to be an Irishman who, with his late Sicilian wife begat Hoffman, who married Jewish girl Elaine (Rosana DeSoto) and begat Adam. Both Adam and his papa are proficient at Passover prayers at Elaine's parents. Then we have to unscramble motivations, morals, structural details and holes.

Why did Adam quit his studies? (Near the end a dumb, simplistic explanation is given).Why does Vito yield to entreaties? Why is Adam's overmaterialistic girlfriend (Victoria Jackson) made the focal point of a sequence yet immediately disappears from the picture? How is it that Vito's penthouse does not have a dishwashing machine? Why are some court sentences so phony? Why do so many talky asides diffuse and dilute the movie?

There are amusing touches here and there, like an old pal of Jessie's selling cheap to the old fellow and his grandson hot goods, designer shoes "that fell off a truck." But even this effect is soon destroyed at an Irish wake where liquor flows freely and illegally in the funeral home and the same entrepreneur brings in a rack of stolen fancy suits which are bought by the mourners, including a large contigent of Irish New York cops. The gag becomes unsettling. Much later, at a second Irish wake, the same man and the same cops are partaking of Japanese electronics which also "fell off a truck" -- a fact which escalates the unsettling into the distasteful. By this time too, ethnicity --a delicate thing to handle-- verges on maudlin caricature.

In the meantime the three men have carried out their burglary, with results, both technical and personal, which my reviewer's credo of non-disclosure will not let me spell out. It's enough to state that there's a bit of suspense, a steady loss of funny effects , a large growth of pathos, unbelievability and gaps, all matched by the viewer's growing indifference as the movie becomes increasingly unpleasant.

Although Sean Connery gives the most picturesque performance, it is sketchy and overdone, while Hoffman makes the most of his torn-loyalties part and Broderick nicely underplays his underwritten role. Once before Sidney Lumet had directed Connery as the mastermind of a heist, in the 1972 "The Anderson Tapes," and failed, except for the depictions of supporting roles. Curiously, the same happens here: some portraits of secondary characters are excellent, from judges to shabby prosecutors. There is an especially film-stealing actress (unidentified in the press information) who plays a chillingly cold lawyer.

In the sub-text of this confused movie there's an ethical attitude represented by Connery. Theft which involves risk-taking is much more acceptable than "legal" large-scale stealing by some stockbrokers, big business, banks, politicians and the like. The idea has some merit but is unexploited. Unexploited too is the clever twist behind the robbery, one that involves Adam's professor.

[Written 29 December 1989]

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel