Family tensions sputter rather than fully ignite in “The War at Home,” a decent but far from apocalyptic take on the Vietnam-vet-with-problems scenario. Emilio Estevez’s third directorial outing (after the bomb “Wisdom” and better “Men at Work”) occasionally presses some real emotional buttons, and is held aloft by a nicely understated perf by his father, Martin Sheen, as his on-screen dad, but there’s a fuzziness of dramatic tone and lack of accruing tension that make this “War” more a series of skirmishes than a deeply felt analysis. Domestic B.O. prospects look mild, with foreign hardly likely to show up on the radar for this very specific item.
Estevez, who first read James Duff’s 1984 Broadway play four years ago, got Disney to bankroll 75% of the $ 4.2 million budget in return for agreeing to play in No. 3 of its “Mighty Ducks” franchise. Technically, pic is his most confident to date, with unforced use of widescreen for the essentially domestic story, and an easy flow to the action. The problems are more in Duff’s adaptation of his play, which rarely debates the issues above a folksy local level and lacks the necessary conflict to work on the bigscreen.
A voiceover opening by teenage sister Karen (Kimberly Williams) intriguingly conveys a sense of the innocence and misguided “patriotism” under which the U.S. became involved in Vietnam, setting up a political subtext that’s largely dumped as the focus shifts to a family level. Sheen and Estevez are on record as saying that it was the play’s spotlighting of wasted American lives that drew them to the material, but much of the movie’s dialogue is far too prosaic to sustain this theme for almost two hours.
Setting is Texas, 1972, and young vet Jeremy Collier (Estevez), though back home for a year, is still traumatized by his experiences. His domineering mom (Kathy Bates), a conservative control freak who still has moral qualms about watching Ingrid Bergman movies, pretends nothing is wrong; his seemingly easygoing but quietly in-charge dad (Sheen) can’t seem to connect with him on any level. Karen occasionally tries to broach the subject of Jeremy’s “adjustment problems” while going through her own teen-rebel angst.
Catalyst to the drama is the approaching Thanksgiving weekend, when Jeremy’s aunt and uncle are due to come over, and Mom is determined to maintain appearances at all costs. When the truth about what Jeremy went through in Vietnam emerges, it turns out that the true enemy was always within the family rather than in the battlefields of Asia.
The drama boils down to a dysfunctional father-son relationship, and in that respect pic neatly brings down to a domestic level some of the issues touched upon in the opening voiceover. Duff’s thesis is that the U.S.’ involvement overseas was more an expression of its rage within than the patriotic or politically meaningful act bannered at the time. But story’s sudden explosion of violence at the end is hardly justified by the low-key emotions and shifting comic-dramatic tone to that point.
Aside from his flashback attacks whenever he walks in the backyard (which then turns into a nocturnal battlefield), Jeremy remains largely a cipher, with dialogue to match. Bates pitches her performance too much at the level of a caricatured Texan housewife to be able to switch comfortably back to normalcy when the drama gets going. When she’s onscreen, the rest of the cast might just as well not be there.
Sheen is much better, never tilting too far in his deceptively breezy paterfamilias, and bringing off at least one moving moment, when he tries to offer his son a helping hand but merely chides him for feeling sorry for himself. Sheen’s perf is mirrored by Williams (“Father of the Bride”) as the daughter, whose in-register, rounded playing is one of the consistent delights of the movie.
Karen’s misguided attempts to find common ground between her growing pains and her brother’s more deep-seated pain would have been far more touching if Jeremy were not such an enigma.
Technically, the film is pro at all levels, with Grania Preston’s early-’70s costuming quietly on the button. Disappointing, though, is Basil Poledouris’ warm, homely score, which doesn’t add any shape or psychological underpinning to the proceedings.