“Checking Out,” a slight but lightly amusing sitcom-style comedy, strongly recalls dinner theater fodder of three decades ago. Based on an obscure legiter that actually had a fleeting Broadway run in the mid-1970s, pic boasts engagingly an flamboyant performance by Peter Falk as a nonagenarian Shakespearean who plays for laughs while casting himself and his offspring in a jokey off-stage twist on “King Lear.” Well-cast co-stars Laura San Giacomo, Judge Reinhold and David Paymer enhance potential appeal to vid renters and cable TV viewers.
As Morris Applebaum, a feisty retired thesp with deep roots in Yiddish theater and mainstream Broadway, Falk cheerfully serves up a generous slice of kosher ham with side orders of schmaltz and shtick. (The accent is so thick, I’m telling you, you wouldn’t believe!) The character wouldn’t work at all without a fair amount of overplaying. But it’s a credit to Falk — and to helmer Jeff Hare — that the performance always remains just this side of over the top.
On the eve of his 90th birthday, Morris invites his three grown children back to his spacious Manhattan apartment for celebratory festivities. The invitation is all the more imperative because of Morris’ matter-of-fact postscript: After the party’s over, he promises, he will take his final exit.
Not surprisingly, the three siblings — divorced psychologist Ted (Paymer), TV sitcom producer Flo (Giacomo) and BMW dealer Barry (Reinhold) — drop whatever they’re doing and fly from various corners of the country to confront Morris. They’re slightly relieved when he tells them that, no, he’s not afflicted with some painfully lingering disease, and he’s not unduly depressed after the death of his loving wife and long-time co-star. But they’re hard-pressed to counter Morris’ simple, unshakable logic regarding suicide: He’s had a good run so far, so why wait around until he’s wasting away in a hospital room or worse?
Despite repeated references to “Lear” — which serves much more as a plot device than a thematic template — Morris’ children prove to be deeply concerned about their father, and he loves them in return. To be sure, he’s none too pleased that Barry shortened his name to Apple and makes a living selling “Nazi cars.” But there are no long-buried secrets to uncover, no long-simmering resentments to explode.
Dialogue is peppered with snappy one-liners that underscore the theatrical origins of Richard Marcus’ adapted screenplay. Occasionally, actors reflexively pause after a particularly good line, as though waiting for audience laughter to subside. Still, funny is funny, and there’s no denying that much of “Checking Out” is agreeably entertaining in a Neil Simon Lite fashion. Production values are more than adequate.