Mark Reviews Movies

IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY

1 Ĺ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Cameron Douglas, Rory Culkin, Bernadette Peters, Diana Douglas, Michelle Monaghan

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for drug content, sexual material and language)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 4/25/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I guess the point of It Runs in the Family is to have three generations of the Douglas family on screen together and play three generations of a movie family. So I guess congratulations are in order for that getting that part of the movie right, but why stop there? Why take thisóI may as well say itólegendary Hollywood family and throw them together to carry a hackneyed screenplay on their shoulders. The presence of father and son actors like Kirk and Michael Douglas working together for the first time should be reason to celebrate and just sit back and enjoy or admire their work on screen, but instead they carry the load screenwriter Jesse Wigutow and director Fred Schepisi have left for them. Instead of admiring their craft, we sympathize with their workmanship. To show up to the set everyday must have been a chore in itself, but to actually read some of these lines and play some of these scenes with the little-to-no direction they seem to have received is a sign of true dedication.

As evening and the Passover holiday approaches, the Gromberg family is preparing to gather after a fairly typical day. Alex (Michael Douglas) is a partner at a high-powered law firm, who started off doing pro bono work for the downtrodden but is now up to his ears in work for big-dollar clients. His father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas), leading a normal retired life after surviving a stroke a year ago, founded the firm but now spends quiet days with his wife Evelyn (Diana Douglas) watching Yankee games and being characteristically grumpy. Alex's older son Asher (Cameron Douglas) is in college and a typical slacker. He does some DJ work but otherwise spends the majority of his time stoned and trying picking up women. The younger son is Eli (Rory Culkin), a quiet kid who gets bullied a lot (although later at a school dance those same bullies are his friends). He doesn't ask his parents for a raise in his allowance, but he does give them a spreadsheet showing his weekly spending and how the increase will help out.

Passover goes off with a few major hitches, but it's an obligatory death in the family that sets the story in motion. Indeed, with three characters who have the potential of kicking the bucket, we spend the early scenes of the movie wondering who and when. The moment before one character discovers the deceased loved one, Schepisi lingers the camera over photographs of the family's younger and happier days. Of course, we can only assume these are actual pictures from the Douglas family photo album, emphasizing early on that the filmmakers depend on the presence of a real family history to flesh out the emotional center of their movie. Instead, the gimmick reveals itself for what it isócheap, manipulative, and exploitative. We can see Schepisi's reliance on it in almost every scene that's meant to be poignant. For example, take a central scene between Alex and Mitchell at the place where the latter met his wife. The two actors look terribly uncomfortable throughout the whole thing. This should be an affecting moment, heightened by the fact that we're watching a real-life father and son doing the scene. Instead, it's clear that they've had little direction and seem to be winging it as they go.

It doesn't help when the screenplay sets the motions for the characters to go through false and sometimes incredibly awkward developments and experiences. It shows the most with Asher. He's introduced in class during the discussion of a classmate's play. He hasn't read it, and the girl behind him calls him on his laziness. She hates him, so of course they'll end up togetherócommon knowledge. But why? Then their next scene together is written with comfortable dialogue, and we think, wait, are they already together? No, she gives him her phone number. But that brings us back to the original question: why? This is the kind of kid who gets drunk with a buddy the night before he has a play due for class (a sudden development that comes completely out of left field) and manages to get himself, his friend, and his new girlfriend arrested because he's growing marijuana in his apartment. Seriously, why is this girl with him? Alex and his wife Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) get a pointless scenario too. You see, a fellow worker at the soup kitchen Alex works at is continuously hitting on him, so of course she leaves her underwear in his jacket (of course). And of course, his wife saves the revelation of the discovery of the mysterious underwear until the night of a loved one's funeral (of course).

You have to understand, though, that this kind of random conflict is what poor drama relies on, and It Runs in the Family is poor drama. It's all fighting and bickering for fighting and bickering's sake. What's amazing is that it has one comic scene so astonishingly ill-conceived that it almost manages to overshadow the ineptitude before it. Picture this: Kirk and Michael Douglas at a riverside with a canoe. Inside the canoe is the body of a recently deceased relative (with eyes disturbingly wide open) who was in the Navy. The plan: set the boat out to "sea" and set it ablaze. This is like something out of Sam Shepard or, at least, Weekend at Bernie's. "This is absurd," the young Douglas says, and if that's not painfully honest self-critique, I don't know what is.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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