“Roommates” is an exceedingly mild story of the emotional tug of war between a lovably cantankerous old codger and the grandson he raises to maturity. Agreeably humorous at times and less squishily sentimental than it might have been, Peter Yates’ generational tale goes down painlessly but hasn’t much flavor or substance, with modest B.O. the likely result.
Always flirting with abject hokiness but keeping itself in check at least some of the time, script by Max Apple and Stephen Metcalfe spans some 30 years in the lives of ancient Rocky Holeczek (Peter Falk) and his grandson, Michael (D.B. Sweeney). Orphaned at age 5, Michael is taken in by his gruff granddad, an old Polish-American coot in Pittsburgh who works as a baker, likes to play cards and settles all arguments in his favor by autocratic decree.
When Michael, at 25, becomes a hospital intern at Ohio State and Rocky, who by now is spryly approaching 100, is evicted from his longtime home, the oldster has no choice but to come live with the kid in Columbus, occasioning jokes about Michael’s waterbed, to which Rocky takes like a fish, and his “Communist,” or Chinese, housemates.
More serious is Rocky’s objection to Michael’s incipient relationship with Beth (Julianne Moore), a lovely social worker with a very wealthy mother (Ellen
Burstyn). Only an intolerant prude could object to such a nice young lady but Rocky, as a very old-fashioned Catholic, objects very strenuously indeed to their sexual carrying-on and, in the film’s main source of conflict, he does everything he can to sabotage the pair.
Being a good boy however, Michael does the only thing he can — he marries the girl. Along the way a sympathetic black professor gets Rocky a job in the bakery of a grocery store, which keeps him in Columbus when Michael takes up his residency back in Pittsburgh. Thereafter, Michael and Beth have two kids, illness finally strikes the indefatigable Rocky, and much worse tragedy visits the door of the family. But just when it seems Michael is losing it, Rocky helps show him the way back, teaching him an ultimate lesson in maturity and responsibility.
Episodic yarn is outfitted to heartwarming specifications, and while Yates mostly prevents the picture from bubbling over into cloying excess, he does so by never turning the temperature up above lukewarm. As a result, both the comedy and the emotion are kept in a very low key, leaving the viewer in a comfortably relaxed mode that won’t quicken any pulses or send people out raving to their friends.
The main artistic and commercial attraction is Falk’s old-age performance. Looking a bit like a more diminutive version of Brando’s elderly Godfather, there’s no denying the humor his crankiness and irascibility generate as he complains and has the last word on any number of subjects.
Sweeney is energetic but a bit opaque as Michael, while Moore is just plain sweet as his sweetheart. Behind-the-scenes hands help the film unobtrusively cover different eras and seasons, while Elmer Bernstein’s score pumps up the emotional moments well beyond what is portrayed dramatically.