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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

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…

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).