All in the family, reluctantly

March 03, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Two immutable laws of movie physics clash in "Roommates."

* No movie with Peter Falk in it can be entirely bad.

* No movie in which a spouse conveniently gets knocked off in a car accident just as the plot is running out of gas can be entirely good.

It's a close contest, but in the end -- just barely, by a mouse's whisker -- the Falk Law of Actodynamics triumphs over the Theorem of Quantum Mechanical Plots.

The movie is what is formally called a "dramady," a combo of drama and comedy. It is as ugly and ungainly as that word sounds, with long, humorous set-pieces placed cheek by jowl against the most horrific of domestic agonies, and Peter Yates, a great director, can never really manage to move smoothly from one to the other.

Set in four years ending with a three and separated by a decade each, it follows the pyrotechnically energetic relationship between Rocky Holeczek, an aging but ageless Polish baker, and his grandson, Michael. Over the 30 years, Michael grows from a cute li'l sprout into a heart surgeon with an attitude problem.

Rocky, of course, is the immutable Falk, an ornery cuss of rectitude and fury whose motto might be: Loud and louder. Poor D. B. Sweeney has the unenviable task of standing up to this human cyclone while aging 30 years in the process. He tries hard.

The movie's bravest decision is not to romanticize Rocky, and to see explicitly the link between his virtues and his defects. Rocky is a man of utter loyalty and unending love, but at the same time (and possibly a reflection of the same pathology) a man of utter rigidity and unending narrowness. And he doesn't change an iota over the years.

The film -- drawn from screenwriter Max Apple's own relationship with his 100-year-old grandfather -- never sentimentalizes Rocky by giving him politically correct attitudes and a forgiving nature. He's a stiff-necked moralist, and his moralistic streak can take on extremely unpleasant overtones.

For example, when he finds a Playboy in his grandson's things, out it goes. Fine -- if the boy is 10. Except that the boy is in his late 20s, a surgery resident at Ohio State. He is, moreover, the sole support of Rocky, who has come to live with him after Rocky's home in working-class Pittsburgh has been torn down.

Later, poor Michael is attempting to entertain a lady friend, as young man are wont to do. Rocky does his darndest to destroy that relationship, understanding that Beth (Julianne Moore) is a threat to the comfortable life he's achieved. He delivers a sanctimonious speech in which he denounces them both, and establishes himself as the arbitrator of all moral dilemmas (which shall be decided by the standards of the year 1910).

Rocky shirks before no man or woman. At any moment, he'll start spouting, and the thrust of the movie is to illustrate these explosive confrontations when grandfather and grandson go at it hammer and tong. If the movie is in some sense a celebration of the old ways -- the eternal verities of family love -- it is not entirely blind to the links of guilt and anguish that sometimes hold such units together.

But, after all, Rocky feels entitled. When Michael's mother died in 1963 (his father, Rocky's son, had died the year earlier, the 12th serviceman killed in Vietnam), Rocky decrees that family is family and takes over the boy. He raises him to splendid manhood -- or at least a manhood splendid enough to take him beyond college into medical school.

A number of small decisions hurt the film: Julianne Moore, for example, is a brilliant actress, but she's so intense and driven that she seems to overmatch the pleasant but depthless Sweeney. What's she doing in a movie like this, anyone who saw her in "Vanya on 42nd Street" will wonder: She's a real actress.

Falk's seeming agelessness is another odd thing: He's just as spry at 107 as he was at 77. A few cheap shots don't help: Ellen Burstyn plays Beth's mother and Michael's eventual mother-in-law in what becomes a parody of a rich, pompous Midwestern widow, who is never given credit for the love and commitment she shows her daughter and her daughter's children.

But the worst thing is the tragic death that re-heats the rapidly cooling plot. It feels utterly gratuitous and manipulative. It beats you over the head in order to batter a few tears out of you; and the spiritual malaise that dominates the last third of the film is its least interesting component.

"Roommates"

Starring Peter Falk and D. B. Sweeney

Directed by Peter Yates

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG

** 1/2

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