Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

It Runs In the Family (2003) **

Directed by Fred Schepisi. Written by Jesse Wigutow. Photography, Ian Baker. Editing, Kate Williams. Production design, Patricia Von Brandenstein. Music, Paul Grabowski. Producer, Michael Douglas. Cast; Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Rory Culkin, Cameron Douglas, Diana Douglas, Michelle Monaghan, Sarita Choudhury, Bernadette Peters, Mark Hammer, et al. An MGM/Buena Vista release. 109 minutes. PG-13

I have no idea what runs in the family. Maladjustement maybe. Dysfunctionalism would be too strong a term.

What runs on the screen is obviously and mostly the real Douglas tribe: Kirk; his son Michael from a first marriage with Diana Douglas; Diana Douglas herself; and, in his first movie, Cameron Douglas, Michael's son by his short first marriage.

The family is the Gromberg tribe of affluent New York Jews. Kirk is old Dad Mitchell ; Diana Douglas is Mitchell's one and only wife Evelyn; Michael is their son Alex; Cameron is Alex's son Asher. Bernadette Peters plays Rebecca, Alex's spouse. The couple have two children, Asher, 24 and Eli, 11 (Rory Culkin, the youngest of the seven Culkin children. It is clear what runs in THAT family)

Mitchell, a retired lawyer is unsurprisingly partly recovering from -what else? -- a stroke. In the legal firm he had founded, son Alex has an uneasy rapport with the other partners. Rebecca is a psychotherapist. Asher, a lousy student at Hunter College, grows and sells marijuana. He is also a sort of disk jockey and apparently beds down young women with the greatest of ease. In a sample shown we see his several tattoos. I prefer the military tattoo, which is a bugle or drum sound. I also like only military decorations. A matter of taste. Here we do not learn whether the tattoos are genuine or movie-makeup, or if Asher was born with them.

Junior brother Eli is a sweet kid with some growing-up problems, vague except for the rising sap one. He is very good at Karate, even though he is smallish, in fact much shorter than the girl who will provide him with his first sexual kiss. She may be a runaway, is pierced, smokes, wears at least one ring per finger.

Alex, a liberal, has reluctantly accepted his first "pro bono" case for a Hispanic woman. He is also a volunteer at a soup kitchen for the destitute. That bit is unlikely enough to raise eyebrows three inches. When he addresses, in Spanish, a gathering of Latinos, given that I know language I could no understand him.

In the exposition the Grombergs gather for a Passover Seder rife with sentimentality as well pointless bickering. The dialogues may interest some viewers, but they ain't Oscar Wilde. The only adult who keeps his mouth shut is Mitchell's senile older brother brought in for the occasion from a nursing home.

There's worry in the air. Classy Grandma Evelyn is undergoing dialysis. Grandpa Mitchell can be both curmudgeonish and humorous. Clearly, there have always been head-buttings between him and Alex. The plot takes several directions, yet telegraphs that its major element will be Father and Son drawing belatedly closer to each other. The time compression makes this rather artificial. Shades (awkward) of Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda in "On Golden Pond."

Crises come and go in all sizes, from trivial to devastating. I will not elaborate -except for that moment of unlikely, mutual and frenzied lust (exaggerated and slapstick-funny) when Alex and Suzie, his soup-kitchen volunteer co-worker, get physically mega-passionate. This will lead to Rebecca's finding panties in her husband's coat. You can guess the rest.

Ever cute Bernadette Peters does a lot in close-to-minimalist fashion. The film's release coincides with glowing reviews of Ms. Peters in the revival of "Gypsy."

(Suzie is Sarita Choudhury, a beautiful English-Indian mix whose movie debut was in "Mississippi Massala.")

The story hops among the characters and their relationships. The spotlight is on Kirk and Michael Douglas, here in their first teaming. Kirk D. is the dominating presence, still forceful in spite of his stroke.

Yet even when Kirk is humorous, there is there is double sadness: his striking loneliness (don't ask) and the audience's remembrance of things past, with the countless movies with a macho, energetic, physically powerful Kirk.

The name of director Fred Schepisi --one of the top contributors to Australia's "New Wave" cinema-- is pronounced "Skepsee." This means "thought" in the Greek language. Most appropriate as the man is a thoughtful and sensitive artist. His feature debut was "The Devil's Playground" followed by "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" and a dozen more pictures, including "A Cry in the Dark" (with Meryl Streep); "Six Degrees of Separation"; the overlooked yet wonderful romance-comedy "I.Q," with Walter Matthau as matchmaking Albert Einstein, Meg Ryan as his niece, Tim Robbins as her suitor. Also the recent, warm, original "Last Orders" about friendships among older Brits.

"Last Orders" has a sort of kinship with the ageing aspects of "It Runs in the Family." There are also respective variants of Viking funerals. Here this is downright dumb, light years away from the funeral in the classic "Beau Geste." Did the writer or some film history buff think of Kirk in the heroic "The Vikings" ? One should blame the script rather than the director.

Note that "It Runs" is a micro-saga of a family, well-directed and acted, watchable but overlong. Not quite successful though, partly because we are distracted by concentrating more on the real life Douglases than on the characters, partly because there's an artificial overload (of characters and events) that leaves no stone unturned.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel