'House Arrest' is unpardonable Review: This dysfunctional-family comedy wastes a good cast by going for the cheap laughs.

August 14, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"House Arrest" couldn't get itself arrested if it tried.

A somewhat clotted comedy, it never manages to decide what kind of movie it wants to be or what it wants to say; it just spins its wheels fecklessly for the longest time until, finally, helpfully, it ends.

It plays, somewhat trivially, on America's warped tradition of dysfunctional, disintegrating family life, but at the same time mates this topic with a heavy-handed fantasy of child empowerment, all while squandering a terrific cast.

As "House Arrest" has it, the marriage between those battlin' Beindorfs, Kevin Pollak and Jamie Lee Curtis, is falling apart on the familiar grounds of his sloppiness and her precision, and they've decided to separate. Their two kids, Grover and Stacy (Kyle Howard and Amy Sakasitz), greatly disturbed at this development, cast about for something to do and end up taking literally a friend's whimsical suggestion that they lock their folks up in the basement until they patch up their differences.

But after inventing this idea, the movie runs out of gas while offering up an image of an adult male not strong enough to outpush his 14-year-old son at a doorway; no one can figure out what to do next until someone comes up with a bad idea. (Yes, I know they don't make this stuff up as they go along, but it feels as if they are on this one!) A stronger and more malicious teen-ager than Grover decides to expand on the initiative, locking his parents in the same basement; another teen's parents and finally the class beauty's single mom are included in the operation, which comes to resemble one of Inspector Renault's round-ups of the usual suspects.

That yields to the film's basic situation, a kind of upstairs-downstairs thing where the kids upstairs establish a grown-up-free paradise and the big people downstairs snuffle and quibble like -- well, like kids. But the movie isn't rigorously imagined enough to provide any real contrasts between the parallel societies or any sophisticated irony; it's too interested in cheap laughs.

And the laughs are cheap. They'd give them away for nothing at Herb's Bargain Store. How many times can you watch kids pouring chocolate syrup on popcorn before it loses its charm? Or playing catch with the china? Then there's the rewiring deal, where the doorbell turns on the Christmas tree lights, ho ho ho.

Downstairs, the actors soon melt down to crudest comic type: Christopher McDonald, as usual, is the blowhard; Wallace Shawn, as usual, is the meek ironist; Jennifer Tilly -- oh, this is a surprise -- is the ditz.

Only Pollak and Curtis create any semblance of character in this tapestry of stereotype, but the movie doesn't give them enough to do as the louder idiots take to the fore with clumsily imagined escape gambits; meanwhile, upstairs: more china catch! An occasional Snickers pie! What about: MTV-style video riffs as they fix dinner!

Please, no more.

"House Arrest"

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Pollak and Kyle Howard

Directed by Harry Winer

Released by MGM

Rating PG

Sun score **

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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