It Runs in the Family is a refreshingly low-key and beautifully made comedy-drama about three generations of a wealthy New York Jewish family. But it's so wispy that at the end you wonder: Exactly what runs in the family?
Kirk Douglas stars as the robust, stroke-scarred patriarch, with Michael as his antagonistic heir; Diana Douglas and Bernadette Peters play their respective long-suffering wives; and Cameron Douglas and Rory Culkin are Michael and Peters' variously troubled sons. It's an achievement for the director, Fred Schepisi, that with all these Douglases mirroring off-screen roles (and another Douglas, Joel, serving as an associate producer), the movie could not be mistaken for a vanity production.
They all carry their weight gracefully - well, maybe not Cameron, but his role is graceless - and Schepisi, drawing on his experiences filming the wondrous Six Degrees of Separation (1993), keeps their upper-crust urban tapestry rhythmic and visually alive. Too bad the design isn't original enough.
It Runs in the Family wants to go beyond tired attacks on dysfunctional families and issue a modest call for clans to confront and get over their rifts. Only Kirk's scattered Yiddish epithets save the writing from terminal blandness. In a funny Seder scene, he pokes jokes at feeble Passover wine. Yet Jesse Wigutow, who wrote the script, fails to ferment anything tangy of his own.
The fictional Grombergs boast a mixed record of accomplishment: Kirk's Mitchell co-founded a big law firm but has been a ruthless professional and an absent father. Alex, conflicted over his legacy, acts erratically as a parent and as a partner in his dad's old firm. He vents his liberal guilt responsibly in a soup kitchen - at least until a co-worker nearly seduces him - and carelessly in a booby-trapped pro bono case. Diana's Evelyn went to law school, too, and Peters' Rebecca is a psychologist in need of her own counseling. Cameron's Asher, petrified of failure, blows off his studies at Hunter College while growing and peddling weed and working as a deejay, while Culkin's sixth-grade Eli has a mindset that prevents him from hashing out the masculine issues of sex and power that are beginning to enthrall him.
It's a credit to the best parts of Wigutow's script, as well as Schepisi's direction, that an audience can feel how the family oscillates between fixed positions and states of comfortable denial. But Wigutow must also take the blame for unpersuasive renderings of crucial relationships like Asher's courtship of a smart, together co-ed from his playwriting class. What does she see in him? Even when Schepisi and his performers imbue well-worn gags or heart-tugging bits with conviction - and carry them off with crack timing - they lack the imaginative oomph that would make them lodge in your memory.
Of course, there's more than a bit of film history here: Even in this cozy setting, Kirk is once again the unsentimental star par excellence. As one stroke survivor playing another one, he never begs for sympathy. He gives his scenes with his wife Diana a persuasive blend of fierce habit and deep affection; Diana answers with a bright, almost lyric clarity. And Kirk gives his scenes with Michael a keen arc of uncoiling grudges; Michael responds with authentic, exasperated sensitivity.
But for a film that puts a talented ensemble through two funerals and one arrest, It Runs in the Family lacks impact and resonance. When all the details click together, you realize you've seen the assembly of a puzzle that didn't fully engage you in the first place.
It Runs in the Family
Starring Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Bernadette Peters, Rory Culkin, Diana Douglas and Cameron Douglas
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Released by MGM
Time 109 minutes
Sun Score * * 1/2