Though the headline on any story about “It Runs in the Family” would doubtless refer to son Michael and father Kirk Douglas co-starring together for the first time, more notable is how director Fred Schepisi steers what could have been a trite family comedy toward thoughtful moods and nuances. Resulting pic uneasily pivots between comedy and drama, with its best parts strongly reminiscent of Schepisi’s previous, British-made drama about aging and dying buddies, “Last Orders.” In his biggest role since his stroke (albeit one customized for him), Kirk maintains a movie star’s second sense for dominating the screen. Pic pitches to all age groups, but slow pace and deliberately non-sensational tone makes this an easier entree for older auds, likely to deliver medium-level B.O. in wide release.
In a Jewish upper-middle-class professional Manhattan family setting that Woody Allen long ago made archetypal, pic is so averse to eccentricities by anyone under 70 years old that the fact lawyer husband Alex (Michael) and shrink wife Rebecca Gromberg (Bernadette Peters) have converted a loft into a home is seen as radical. So is the way their youngest son Eli (Rory Culkin) asks for a raise in allowance by issuing a personal expense report. Equally troubling is eldest son Asher’s (Cameron Douglas) permanently glazed-over look, a sign that he is — horrors — smoking pot.
Pic introduces family members individually, moving from one to the other like items at a buffet. Patriarch Mitchell (Kirk) suffered a stroke a year before and retired from the law firm he founded (and where Alex works serving sleazy corporate clients). Mitchell is trying to adjust to a slower pace with wife Evelyn (Diana Douglas).
Eli is attracted to, but intimidated by, bad-girl classmate Abby (Irene Gorovaia), while Asher’s habit of dozing in lit class is just one of several turn-offs for smart, winsome classmate Peg (Michelle Monaghan). Alex’s progressive side emerges as he takes a pro-bono case and volunteers at a soup kitchen, where he’s bombarded with the super-aggressive flirting of randy co-worker Suzie (Sarita Choudhury).
The clan comes together for its annual Passover seder, which Schepisi stages with enough breadth to allow for some improv, giving realism to the endless clashes and needling between Mitchell and Alex. Alex says his dad is “a ball-buster” who just can’t enunciate as well as he used to. Mitchell’s senile older brother Stephen (Mark Hammer) makes strange sounds and breaks wind during the main course, but much like the film overall, his character falls uneasily somewhere between being the butt of jokes and a sympathetic portrait of fragile old age.
“It Runs in the Family” admirably wants to be generous to each family member, in terms of time and character development, but it never comes up with a strategy to make it all flow dramatically. One example is Asher, who shows Peg he likes her; but she’s so repulsed by his stoner ways that romance seems hopeless. It happens nonetheless, and though both Cameron and Monaghan give it their all, the tryst beggars belief.
An unexpected death helps push the film toward some finely tuned dramatic levels, undermined by an overly mannered third act that has each family member in crisis mode on the same evening. It’s here Peters has a bit more to play with as a wife who feels she’s been cheated on, but her Rebecca — despite her professional identity — never seems to have a life of her own. A nod to Kirk’s epic turn in “The Vikings” will tickle cinephiles.
The Douglas match is never exactly magical, but is best in the quiet moments when father and son use unspoken emotions to reveal a bit more than a standard family feud. Culkin, feeling and playing younger than his ultra-bratty “Igby Goes Down,” shows his tender side this time.
Production package is as handsome as the upscale digs require.