“Domestic Disturbance” is a low-end example of family imperilment hokum from the studio that of late has all but owned the patent on the formula. Although decked out with a legitimate star and handsome production carpentry, pic takes no greater interest in creating three-dimensional characters or fleshing out a credible storyline than does the run-of-the-mill straight-to-video thriller. An aggressive sell of the commercially reliable endangered-child angle will probably spur a potent opening, but the public should be able to smell, sooner rather than later, that this is no “Fatal Attraction” or even “Double Jeopardy.”
Hanging its dramatic hopes entirely on the potential threat posed to a 12-year-old boy by his new stepfather, Lewis Colick’s paint-by-numbers script pits divorced swell guy Frank Morrison (John Travolta) against good-looking-and-rich Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), who has to try real hard to be nice. Frank is a cuddly teddy bear dedicated — silly him — to the dying and unremunerative craft of building all-wood boats in Southport, Md. He’s also a great dad to Danny (Matt O’Leary), who’s been acting out since his parents split and mom Susan (Teri Polo) took up with Rick.
Frank gets Danny to come to terms with his mother’s remarriage, but at the wedding a weirdo named Ray turns up, and since he’s played by Steve Buscemi, you know that something unsavory is afoot. A dissolute layabout, Ray wants some payback for a crime for which he went to prison but Rick got off. After Ray begins attracting a little attention around town, from Frank among others, Rick decides to put this unwanted visitor from his past out his life once and for all, doing so in his SUV while Danny just happens to be hiding in back, then unwittingly incinerating the body in full view of the boy.
This is just one big sequence that vet director Harold Becker fails to pump to maximum effect; the logistics of the scene, with the dying Ray’s face looming over Danny as the kid cowers on the vehicle floor, present the opportunities for a visual shock similar to what Orson Welles achieved in “Touch of Evil” when Janet Leigh looked up to see the strangled Akim Tamiroff’s bulging eyes staring down at her. The equivalent moment here is thrown away to no effect at all, as are the multiple episodes of fabricated fear when Rick implausibly materializes in Danny’s room to tell him to do as he says … or else.
Tale’s second half consists of a waiting game until all the grown-ups, including the police, come around to believing that Rick actually did what the kid says he saw. Natch, Frank is the first to accept his son’s account — especially after Rick knocks him out and sets fire to his historic boathouse — and Susan, who’s now pregnant, is the last. But Rick’s been so fundamentally slimy and short-tempered from the beginning that, once exposed, it’s impossible for him to pretend that he’s not really a bad guy.
Travolta, whose hair is looking really good these days, is clearly into his idealized caring dad character and relates comfortably with young O’Leary, an attractive kid who comes far closer to presenting a well-rounded individual than does anyone else here. As written and played, there is no ambiguity about the true nature of Vaughn’s Rick, while Polo has two strikes against her as a woman who would both reject the virtuous Frank and fall for a scumbag like Rick.
Shot in North Carolina, pic looks smart in all departments and boasts a jangly suspense score by Mark Mancina. But best contribution comes from editor Peter Honess, who mercifully wraps it all up in under 90 minutes.