Part of the fun of Connery in his late career bloom is watching him parry with his younger co-stars. Sometimes his opponents pull their weight (Ford, Costner), at others they stumble and fall (Harmon, Gere). Seeing him opposite Dustin Hoffman, the effect is less straightforward. It’s not so much that Hoffman is seven years younger yet playing Connery’s son that’s disorientatin (although it does seem like a stretch, particularly since at no point does Dustin ask “Are you sure you’re my dad?”) It’s that you’re conscious of the clash of acting styles, and at no point does the “son” emerge looking like the winner.
Hoffman plays the Sicilian son of the Scottish/Irish Connery (does he ever play otherwise, the occasional Spaniard excepted?) In more recent years Hoffman has been upfront about the randomness of playing Sean’s boy (“That was the silliest piece of casting I ever did”), and how he did it for the money, not the art (you can tell). He’s also intimated that he and Connery may not have had the best of relationships (when someone starts a sentence with “I like Sean, but..” you can tell a volume of information has been left unsaid); Hoffman is notoriously specific about his roles and wants to take the time to get them just so (ask poor Sydney Pollack) whereas, as he puts it, “Sean didn’t like to do more than two takes because he likes golf”. Yet that infuriating exactness is completely at odds with his role as Vito. He’s adrift here, with only the thinnest of hooks to hang his character on. It’s a movie that only makes sense once you have the stars; without it, you wonder why anyone would want to make it.
Which means that the main pleasure is in seeing Connery’s big Jessie effortlessly demolish Hoffman in every scene they share. Even funnier is the sight of Hoffman getting a bit physical with Connery during an outburst. It looks like he's trying to impress the Scot through sheer force of personality but Connery only has to burr something in order to blow him off the screen (and make him look a little silly). Connery knows how to achieve a lot by doing very little. It’s the antithesis of his co-star. (Also notable is his character’s casual racism ["Up yours, you guinea midget!"]; coming hot on the heels of The Untouchables it almost appears as if it’s a regular feature of his comeback period roles.)
Maybe Hoffman was trying to prove something to the sterling Scott about his take on the art of thesping. Maybe he just thought creating a bit of tension would work for the father-son butting of heads. Except Hoffman’s not at home in this role. He never feels as loose or natural as his co-stars, and it’s likely for the reasons noted (alternatively, you might argue he’s just playing the uptight dad and son; whatever the truth of the matter, he’s not at his best). Generally I’m a fan of his work, but if he doesn't have a role that justifies his obsessive approach, he can end up making a meal of everything - as he does here.
If Hoffman’s observation that Connery and Lumet were a good pairing is a little disparaging, it’s also fair. This was the fifth and final collaboration between them and, unfortunately, by some distance the weakest. Lumet had a workhorse ethic with regard to moviemaking, for better or worse, and he churned out a picture a year, year in year out until the ‘90s. His quality control was variable, but he was rarely two movies away from a critical or commercial success. It was only around this period that his judgement began to veer determinedly off the tracks. The Verdict is his last classic, and Q&A (the year after Family Business) his last great movie. What attracted him to Family Business is unclear, but it’s a New York crime movie so the familiar milieu may have held promise.
Vincent Patrick (his only other screenplay is the lacklustre The Devil’s Own) adapted his own novel, about the McMullen family and their flirtations with criminality. The youngest member of the family (Adam; Matthew Broderick), something of a prodigy and a college dropout, brings Jessie his idea for a job, and it isn’t long before Vito (who has forsaken a life of crime for a meat packing business) is reluctantly roped in. When things go wrong, and Adam is arrested, the riffs between Vito and Adam and Vito and Jessie widen.
The script is contrived enough even before the casting director came up with the unlikely grandfather-father-son team. Patrick brings nothing new to the intergenerational feuding and rivalry. The “You were never there for me” and “You never asked me what I wanted” running hang-ups are so clichéd you want to tell them to just stop already. Patrick embarks on a misguided attempt to create a sense of nobility about the McMullen's chosen "profession"; Jessie is disgusted at the immorality of Adam's girlfriend, labelling her a parasite for profiting from the sale of terminal patients' apartments. It's the kind of artificiality that is born of nervousness over whether or not the protagonists will prove sympathetic. The robbery itself is almost incidental, but it’s the most engaging part of the picture. There's a sense that this plot line had more beats to it but they got ironed out, Jessie’s investigation of what really went on occurs mostly off-screen (amounting to a confrontation in a car and an info-dump of exposition) when the DNA research shenanigans actually hold a spark more interest than Lumet perhaps had confidence in.
It’s all down hill from there, unfortunately. Following the rather unconvincing sentencing (from Back to the Future’s Strickland, no less) the last half hour descends into unearned melodramatics and maudlin remonstrations. It doesn’t seem like the right place to take a story that, for all the thesping and conflict, has been fairly lightweight. None of this is helped by Cy Coleman’s inappropriate and listless score, actively working against any drama or suspense; it doesn’t suit anything other than inane ambling.
Broderick holds his own against his peers, although his inexperienced preppy kid, who knows nothing of the mean streets, is something he could do in his sleep. But he’s always been a very natural performer, and the idea that he’s Hoffman’s son is a lot less silly than that of Hoffman/Connery. As he’s drifted into middle age he’s been typecast as the straight-edger, which is a shame; he should get a chance to call on that Bueller charm once in a while. Rosanna DeSoto also deserves a mention as Hoffman’s wife; her naturalism in a bit role is more than the film deserves, particularly with Hoffman hogging the screen with his tics and quirks. Elsewhere, there’s an early appearance from Luis Guzman. The Wire’s Wendell Pierce shows up briefly too, playing a prosecutor.
These sorts of generational ensembles always sound better on paper than they turn out. The same thing happened about a decade later with Brando/De Niro/Norton in The Score. Like that film, you can’t help but find something worthwhile in seeing grand thesps match (or mismatch) each other. But the stronger sense is of a missed opportunity. That said, I would never have expected Connery and Hoffman to star opposite each other anyway; it would have surprised me even more if it had worked.