'It Runs in the Family' has virtually nothing to recommend it

September 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Run from "It Runs in The Family."

Derived from the folksy, avuncular works of Jean Shepherd, it's a movie in search of a story, characters and a reason to exist. In this quest, it goes 0 for 3. It's like watching Jell-O harden, then melt, only not quite so much fun.

Shepherd, declared a "humorist" essentially by Playboy magazine, which alone among American publications would print his meandering, pretentious and banal recollections of life in an idealized early '50s small Indiana city, actually narrates this film in a plummy radio voice that overstates everything and soon comes to feel as if a very strong man is applying extreme thumb pressure to the base of your brain.

The movie sputters around a thinly fictionalized Gary, Ind., in the early '50s, its inhabitants' base hostilities disguised as zany charm. For example, one overarching problem of the heroic Parker family, the white-bread suburbanites who are at the pious center of the work, is the "hillbillies" who live next door. These rural people, themselves the subject of complex social pathologies that uprooted them from their land at the end of World War II, are reviled as dirty, loud and drunken, as well as violent, junky, ignorant and stupid. Dad's continuing hostility to them never makes the point of Dad's social superiority, as Shepherd and dim-bulb director Bob Clark hope: It makes the point that dad is a bigot.

There's no principle of organization: The movie wanders through minor epiphanies, with poor dour Kieran Culkin in the unenviable position as the Shepherd-analogue Ralphie, lacking as much in the charisma department as his more famous brother has. Among his meek adventures is an overdone number of vignettes on the subject of top warfare, '50s style, as he seeks a killer toy to compete with a vicious monster in a coonskin cap. Yes, I said . . . tops. Does anybody remember tops, those spinning things? I don't even remember them, and I'm so old I remember coonskin caps.

There's a bit that portrays Ralphie's mother -- Mary Steenburgen -- as a stupid jerk who falls for some movie theater promotion that issues weekly "dinnerware of the stars." But worst of all is Charles Grodin, as Ralphie's angry, mean father. This is the kind of guy who ends up on skyscrapers with a deer rifle. A petty hTC tyrant, overbearing and didactic and terribly rigid, he barks at the world and everything in it, desperately trying to assure himself of his own superiority.

Grodin, normally a supple, ironic actor, is here without charm; he locks his jaw up into a bear trap and snarls at the world in a garrulous, embittered voice, hustling after pathetic victories wherever they exist.

"It Runs in the Family" sells bogus nostalgia for a past that never existed, but it can't hide its true ugliness of spirit.

"It Runs in the Family"

Starring Charles Grodin and Kieran Culkin

Directed by Bob Clark

Released by MGM

Rated PG-13

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