Occasionally funny, 'Passed Away' dies for lack of a decent script

April 24, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Recovering from a heart attack, 70-year-old Jack Scanlan gives his family a terrific present: he drops dead.

"Passed Away" chronicles the large and unruly Scanlan clan's attempts to deal with this wonderful opportunity: a few squander it in mawkish excess like "grief" or "depression," but most of them see it for what it is, a chance for romantic fulfillment, career advancement, free food and booze, whatever. As for Jack (Jack Warden), lying there pink and frosty, he seems to be enjoying it as well: Party hearty, dead dude.

The movie, like most ensemble pieces, is intermittently funny and stupid. Some of the characters work and some of the situations work; but most just sit there, eating up screen time and going sour.

Bob Hoskins plays Jack's oldest son Johnny, who inherits the patriarch's mantle of responsibility before he's quite ready for it. William Petersen is Jack's youngest Frank; a glad hander who was once a great jock but nobody's idea of genius, he's the heir-apparent down at the local Union, where Jack was president; but he's clearly not the man his dad was, and will be easy pickings for some slicker operator. Then there's Pamela Reed, Jack's bohemian daughter Terry, who danced on Broadway and owns her own New York dance studio. As consistently rebellious as she is, she's still afraid to tell her mother (Maureen Stapleton) that she's divorced. Finally, Frances McDormand is Nora, the perfect daughter, the nun. Only she gets involved in the liberation theology movement, working underground in El Salvador. When she shows up, it's with an illegal immigrant, being hunted by immigration officials.

Reed, and this should surprise no one who saw her subtly upstage Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Kindergarten Cop," pretty much walks off with the movie. Reed's Terry is sly, tough, insinuating, insecure and very smart. It may help that Charlie Peters, who wrote as well as directed, gave her the few good lines he could come up with, but what really helps is her deadpan, gimlet-eyed shrewdness: She's the movie's spirit of reality.

Hoskins isn't bad, but the subplot conceived for him is somewhat unattractive. He becomes enamored of a young woman (Nancy Travis) whom he thinks was his dad's mistress and in a fit of Oedipal jealousy, decides he must have her. It's his mid-life crises and he can spend it any way he wants, but it's not great. Travis, smart and elegant, does typical Hollywood working class shtick: just OK.

The surprise is Petersen. When he plays wired, intense crazies (see "Manhunter," or "To Live and Die in L.A.") he's as scary as they come. As good for nothing Frank, he's a wash; just not there in any convincing way. I could have done without McDormand's self-righteous nun act altogether.

But the mystery is . . . Charlie Peters. This guy wrote "Kiss Me Goodbye," "Blame It on Rio," "Three Men and a Little Lady" and "Her Alibi." They have one thing in common: They stunk. So now he's a director? Who does he know, Griffin Mill?

'Passed Away'

Starring Bob Hoskins and William Petersen.

Directed by Charlie Peters.

Released by Hollywood Films.

Rated PG-13.


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