It Runs in the Family

(2003) * 1/2 Pg-13
109 min. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Director: Fred Schepisi. Cast: Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Rory Culkin, Cameron Douglas, Bernadette Peters.

Without the leavening effect of its cast (mostly picked from the Douglas family tree), It Runs in the Family would be unbearably sappy. As it is, it comes damn close: the movie has the tone and canned dialogue of a "special event" TV-movie and mostly earns attention as the cinematic curio which brings together Kirk Douglas, ex-wife Diana, son Michael, and grandson Cameron in a too-autobiographical-for-comfort family dramedy.

Multitudes of real family pictures grace the film from start to finish, and the fictional apple doesn't fall far from the real tree. Kirk Douglas plays Mitchell Gromberg, a former Bronze-god actor--sorry, lawyer--brought low by the ravages of time (in particular, a recent stroke). Michael plays his son Alex, a successful lawyer, sometime politico, and committed charitable volunteer. Cameron--following up his unheralded debut as "Giancarlo's Man" in Mr. Nice Guy--plays Alex's ne'er-do-well son Asher, a ladies' man student and drug dealer. Diana plays Mitchell's loyal and inordinately patient wife. With the exception of the last point, the Douglases bravely "keep it real."

Except that they don't. Director Fred Schepisi is far too competent for this material; perhaps to best excuse the script's conservative simplicity, he encourages the relentlessly cute tone of a family film vetted by therapists. This is a man's world, so emotions must be pulled like teeth and the lessons run to "Family is Good," "Fighting is Good, Especially for Love or Country," "Religious Faith is Also Good," and "Drugs are Bad." Lugubrious pacing and cheesy dialogue ("Let me give you some good advice," "Pappy" Gromberg garbles. "Never get old") further mire the film.

As for the acting, Cameron makes an unappealing performer (lines like "Hey, Dad, can you chill out please?" hardly help) and, though miraculously hardy, the 86-year-old Kirk is undeniably hampered by his stroke. Diana and Michael are sturdy, while Bernadette Peters practically sings her role as Michael's frustrated wife. The best performance in this acting-dynasty movie shouldn't be by a Culkin (Rory, as Michael's other son), but it is.

One would have to be made of stone not to feel a tug at certain moments--say, a cathartic father-son gazebo scene for Kirk and Michael or Kirk's forlorn duet with an empty bed--but the actors are too self-conscious and the script too inept to fully exploit the obvious replays from real life, like Michael bailing out Cameron in a police station (Cameron was nabbed on cocaine possession charges in 1999).

Filled with done-to-death dramatic beats and tidy pay-offs, It Runs in the Family thuds to earth at each abortive take-off attempt. It's no more likely to fly at the box office, either: scenes of drug arrests and marital infidelity aim this otherwise sweet-natured family film squarely at tween boys who'd rather be standing in line for X2 or The Matrix Reloaded.

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