Hollywood is certainly offering a balanced schedule of releases this weekend. At the one extreme is “The Real Cancun,” which no one over the age of twenty (maybe twenty-five at the outside) will be able to stomach for long. But as if to compensate, MGM is offering this vehicle for the Douglas clan–a picture which few people without AARP cards in their pockets will find to their taste. If “It Runs in the Family” were shown on the tube, it would definitely skew to the senior demographic.
In fact, Fred Schepisi’s film would be better off on the small screen. The screenplay by Jesse Wigutow (whose past work includes stints on “Sesame Street” and “Early Edition”) is precisely the sort of thing which–with a few adjustments to moderate the language–would easily pass as a Sunday night CBS telefilm or a Hallmark Hall of Fame “special event.” It’s one of those contrived inter-generational comedy-dramas filled with laughter and tears that closes with multiple climaxes and, it seems, endless reconciliations. The linchpin in the tale of an upper- class New York family is Alex Gromberg (Michael Douglas), an attorney in the corporate firm his dad founded, who’s unfulfilled at work (being a liberal who’d prefer involvement in socially- conscious cases) and suffering from a kind of mid-life marital crisis, being aggressively–and not entirely unhappily–propositioned by a woman (Sarita Choudhury) with whom he works as a volunteer in a soup kitchen. His wife, psychiatrist Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) isn’t aware of his dalliance for much of the story, being too busy taking care of their peculiarly introverted younger boy Eli (Rory Culkin) while Alex spends most of his time away from home. She’s also concerned about Alex’s strained relationship with his father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas), a grouchy stroke survivor who habitually criticizes his son. The two are constantly squabbling, despite the best efforts of Rebecca and Mitchell’s wife Evelyn (Diana Douglas) to enforce peace between them. Meanwhile Alex and Rebecca fail to deal with the problems of their older son Asher (Cameron Douglas), a student at Hunter College but an obvious slacker nonetheless, and a kid who’s clearly into drugs, too; a subplot has him linking up with a much more focused, hardworking student named Peg (Michelle Monaghan), but his own failings inevitably endanger what could be a storybook romance. One other character is important in the family mix: Mitchell’s brother Stephen (Mark Hammer), a wheelchair-bound old man who lost his legs in World War II and has now lapsed into a senility which makes him an irritant, though a lovable one, at family gatherings.
You can well imagine the sorts of crises that occur over the course of the narrative. They range from something as trivial as an adolescent school dance for which Eli isn’t quite prepared to Rebecca’s predictable discovery of women’s panties in Alex’s coat, Asher’s marijuana bust and, of course, unexpected death (or in this case, multiple departures from this veil of tears). The tone veers from cute to weepy to serious to tragic-touched-by-humor. The mixture is intended to be funny and touching, of course, but it’s too heavy-handed and obvious to work. Toward the close an excess of plot resolutions jostle against one another much too insistently; the ultimate contrivance comes in a ham-fisted “Viking funeral” sequence that’s clearly designed as an homage to one of Kirk’s famous roles but comes across as too cutesy for words. The faults in the material are exacerbated, surprisingly, by Schepisi, ordinarily a sensitive director, whose work here feels uncertain and halting. Things move along too slowly, and the pace accentuates the script’s flaws.
Still, the picture does serve as a showcase for the Douglas clan. Even with his speech impaired, Kirk retains his sense of timing, and he clearly relishes playing a curmudgeon (he revels, for instance, in the fact that Mitchell’s raffish advice so often proves correct). Evelyn, the actor’s long-divorced wife (and mother of Michael), makes an aristocratic spouse for him. Michael, on the other hand, doesn’t seem quite at ease as a man who feels his father’s disapproval too intensely, and Cameron lacks the charm needed to make the scruffy Asher less a lout than he appears to be. Peters is more stilted than usual as Alex’s long-suffering wife, and Culkin’s preciousness is a mite wearying as well; Hammer is certainly convincing, but you might consider the character of Stephen itself a rather crude device to elicit smiles and sympathy.
“It Runs in the Family” has been lushly produced. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design is elegant–the exterior locales are gorgeous and the interiors fastidiously appointed–and Ian Baker’s widescreen cinematography captures it all splendidly. But appearances aren’t enough: in the final analysis the film is like an urban cousin of “On Golden Pond” that sinks under the weight of all the banal domestic tragicomedy it’s forced to bear.