When Frank Capra wrote his autobiography, “The Name Above The Title,” in 1971, one of the saddest chapters involved the making of his last film, “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961), a remake of his earlier “Lady for a Day” (1934). It was, he said, a terrible experience except for one thing–the presence of Peter Falk in the cast. “Peter Falk was my joy, my anchor to reality,” he wrote. “Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder [star] Glenn Ford. Thank you, Peter Falk.”
Those four last words are ones that Paul Reiser would be wise to repeat when he talks about “The Thing About My Folks.” Reiser wrote the sentimental period comedy, in which he plays a son getting to know his aging father when the two take an unplanned road trip in upstate New York. His script is a schmaltzy, heavy-handed piece of work, and his own performance, under Raymond De Felitta’s very permissible direction, is fussy and mannered. But thank you, Peter Falk: his playing of the old man oozes with elfin charm. And while many of the lines coming from Reiser’s own mouth ring false, when Falk has at his dialogue, he makes it sound far better than it is. He utterly steals the movie, and though that might not amount to the great train robbery, the result is that “Folks” is at least tolerable, if only sporadically enjoyable.
The plot hinge is the unexplained disappearance of Muriel Kleinman (Olympia Dukakis), wife of Sam (Falk) and mother of Ben (Reiser), who abandons her home of 47 years, leaving behind a note saying that she needs some time alone. While the Kleinman sisters (Mimi Lieber, Ann Dowd and Claire Beckman) fret over where she might have gone–and why–Ben finds himself charged with taking care of dad, which leads to their drive from the city upstate, where Ben has an appointment to visit a secluded lake house he might buy. Along the way the pair talk about the family’s past, and during an angry moment Ben shows his father a letter he’s kept hidden for years–one penned by Muriel to Sam shortly before Ben’s birth but never given to him, in which she had complained about their marriage and voiced her unhappiness. The letter sets off an argument between the men, leading to an auto accident and their taking a freewheeling jaunt in an old car Sam buys on impulse. Needless to say, they bond as they never have before when they fish together, attend a small-town baseball game, play a game of pool in a roadside bar, and the like. And in the end, when they find out the reason for Muriel’s departure, it brings the whole family closer than they’ve ever been.
Obviously this is a very manipulative piece that can easily descend into mawkishness–and, actually, does, quite often. It could easily have been produced as one of those cloying, sniffle-and-smile-inducing telefilms that serve as Sunday night network “special events.” What saves it, as much as it can be, from total bathos isn’t the acting per se–Reiser’s characteristic affectations grow irritating over the long haul, the talented Elizabeth Perkins is wasted in the throwaway part of his wife, and Dukakis, when she finally shows up, has little to do but look pathetic–or the physical production, which could most charitably be described as adequate. It’s quite simply Falk. His simple appearance on the screen is enough to create a wave of affection from the audience, and his wry, bemused delivery of even the flattest, most sentimental lines can make them sound almost inspired. Wim Wenders suggested that he was an angel in human form in “Wings of Desire,” and his uncanny ability to connect with an audience in this way does in fact suggest almost supernatural powers. (Of course, even Falk can’t make the gags involving Sam’s flatulence anything other than embarrassing, but that’s the script’s fault.)
Naturally, the fact that “The Thing About My Folks” provides one with an opportunity to bask in Peter Falk’s almost uninterrupted glow for ninety minutes doesn’t make it a good movie. But that’s the only reason to see it, and it may be enough for you.