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Film review

Finessing the familiar

The Thing About My Folks takes an old film recipe, adds a consummate actor, deft writing and restrained directing, and serves up a delight.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published September 22, 2005

[Picturehouse Films]
Peter Falk, left, and Paul Reiser, playing a father and son on a quest, put a new shine on some hackneyed film conventions in The Thing About My Folks.

Nothing surprises in The Thing About My Folks except how effective such timeworn material can be when the right people deliver it. The movie contains little that we haven't seen before, but charm can make anything seem a bit fresher.

Most credit goes to Peter Falk, whose portrayal of a grandfather suddenly deserted by his wife is a reminder that his talent didn't begin and end wearing Columbo's trench coat. Actors of his age (78) don't often get roles this crucial or play them so well. Falk doesn't merely carry The Thing About My Folks; he bravely totes it over a mountain of cliches like one of Hannibal's elephants.

Falk plays Sam Kleinman, whose dedication to work for the financial sake of his wife and children kept him from offering the emotional support they needed. Nobody is shocked when Muriel (Olympia Dukakis) takes off. They're certainly worried, because she left without a trace, but not shocked. Even Sam is more concerned than he'll admit. He turns to his son Ben (Paul Reiser) for help in figuring out why Muriel left and where she went.

That leads to a road trip, a movie device so old it creaks. But it's an easy way to keep conflicting personalities together while they episodically work out their differences. Sam and Ben share comical misadventures - freshwater fishing, a bar brawl, meeting sexy women, etc. - while they dramatically unload their souls. A bipolar screenplay written by Reiser can't quite balance his Mad About You sitcom instincts with an obvious desire to emulate Woody Allen's neurotic prose.

Yet, somehow this derivative, predictable story works, probably because of Falk's unforced determination to make that happen. We sense the joy in his performance, the pride of having cameras focused on him again. He doesn't need the money, but he needs the feeling of creating something special, even if jaded viewers don't find it so. Falk can make cynicism evaporate with a feisty line reading or a twinkle in his good eye. I honestly wouldn't mind if Oscar voters reverted to their old habit of making sentimental nominations for aging stars.

The rest of the film seems fairly ordinary, until the final act when Muriel's disappearance is explained in one of those sucker punch twists that would normally make me cringe. The fact that it didn't, and even yanked a tear or two, is a compliment to Reiser's writing and Raymond De Felitta's bystander style of directing. The Thing About My Folks isn't big, fat or Greek and doesn't involve a wedding, but it sneakily becomes that kind of feel-good movie.

The Thing About My Folks

Grade: B-

Director: Raymond De Felitta

Cast: Paul Reiser, Peter Falk, Olympia Dukakis, Elizabeth Perkins, Lydia Jordan, Mackenzie Connolly

Screenplay: Paul Reiser

Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual content, mature themes

Running time: 96 min.

[Last modified September 21, 2005, 09:46:04]

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