A coming-of-age piece that is slight to the point of anemia, "Unstrung Heroes" sports a willful eccentricity that almost immediately becomes annoying. Diane Keaton's debut dramatic feature aims for a distinctively offbeat tone that never really gels and the movie's emotional power, stemming from personal growth through family tragedy, falls short of the goal as well. With a very circumscribed story that struggles to extend its meanings beyond its own boundaries, item will have trouble making any kind of commercial dent.

A coming-of-age piece that is slight to the point of anemia, “Unstrung Heroes” sports a willful eccentricity that almost immediately becomes annoying. Diane Keaton’s debut dramatic feature aims for a distinctively offbeat tone that never really gels and the movie’s emotional power, stemming from personal growth through family tragedy, falls short of the goal as well. With a very circumscribed story that struggles to extend its meanings beyond its own boundaries, item will have trouble making any kind of commercial dent.

While continuing to act, Keaton has started to forge a career as a director, beginning with the fanciful theatrical docu “Heaven” and continuing with the TV spec “The Girl With the Crazy Brother,” the well-received cable feature “Wildflower” and several TV episodes and musicvideos. While it’s not a bad thing to start small, Keaton also has managed to begin her feature career obscurely, with a tale that seemingly had the potential for oddball comedy as well as slow-burn heart-tugging, but is neither funny nor as moving as it might have been.

Set in middle-class Los Angeles in 1962, yarn focuses on 12-year-old Steven Lidz (Nathan Watt), a bright kid whose life at home becomes too much to take. Father Sid (John Turturro), a genius inventor, has always been a bit around the bend, forever imposing his rigorous scientific standards and weird contraptions on Steven and his little sister Sandy (Kendra Krull).

After mom Selma (Andie MacDowell) becomes ill, Steven feels compelled to run away to the home of his seriously goofy uncles Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin). Home, in this case, consists of a newspaper-and-tchotchke-infested apartment in a skid-row hotel. Danny is the intense one, the original conspiracy theorist who sees anti-Semitism everywhere and believes there are only eight decent human beings in the world. Arthur is the bashful innocent who delights in collecting things.

To the credit of Keaton, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and the actors, these mild nut cases are not sentimentalized or turned into lovable loons. Nor, however, are they transformed into dimensional human beings who serve as anything other than the paladins of Steven’s burgeoning maturity, signified by something as normal and traditional as his bar mitzvah.

Indeed, the Jewishness of the family, and especially of the uncles, is emphasized in an unusually strong way, although to no particular dramatic end.

Danny’s dementia finally reaches such a pitch that he institutionalizes himself, and when Selma, in the film’s most touching sequence, silently acknowledges that the time has come for her to take her leave, the film actually could have benefited from a level of spirituality that its more literal nods to religion have not generated.

The behavior of the three Lidz brothers is bizarre but not terribly amusing or edifying. Richards and Chaykin command the interest whenever they’re around, but Turturro brings little feeling to a man who, at least on paper, would seem to be tormented by the craziness in his family, his inability to communicate with his son and the knowledge that he will soon lose his wife. MacDowell floats through in a nearly blissful daze.

As shot by Phedon Papamichael and designed by Garreth Stover, pic is pleasing to look at, but Thomas Newman’s score, which features an oddly quasi-Oriental sound, is too loudly intrusive for the delicate nature of the story.

Unstrung Heroes

(Drama -- Color)

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Roth/Arnold production. Produced by Susan Arnold, Donna Roth, Bill Badalato. Directed by Diane Keaton. Screenplay, Richard LaGravenese, based on the book by Franz Lidz.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem/Foto-Tronics color; Technicolor prints), Phedon Papamichael; editor, Lisa Churgin; music, Thomas Newman; production design, Garreth Stover; art direction, Chris Cornwell; set decoration, Larry Dias; costume design, Jill Ohanneson; sound (Dolby SR), Robert J. Anderson Jr.; associate producers, Joe Kelly, Jackie Rubin; assistant director, Matthew H. Rowland; casting, Gail Levin. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 94 min.

With

Selma Lidz ... Andie MacDowell Sid Lidz ... John Turturro Danny Lidz ... Michael Richards Arthur Lidz ... Maury Chaykin Steven/Franz Lidz ...Nathan Watt Sandy Lidz ... Kendra Krull
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