Skip to main content

Hey; if you can't do the time, don't do the crime.


Family Business
(1989)

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.

**1/2 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Something something trident.

Aquaman (2018)
(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.