Actress Diane Keaton has declared herself a film director, and she hasn't taken long to set a style. In Unstrung Heroes, a bittersweet tearjerker combining a twelve-year-old boy, his dying mother, his geeky father and two crackpot uncles, Keaton leans toward solemn silences and worried faces reflected in windowpanes. She favors sepia-toned period nostalgia and, like most other actors turned filmmakers, stretches of comic dialogue that indulge the ham in her cast. She's also mad for Sensitivity with a capital S. So what we have here is two parts Love Story and one part Woody Allen, plunked down in L.A. in 1960 and presented with the gravity of Shakespearean tragedy.
Surprisingly, it's not bad. Manipulative? You bet. Schmaltzy? Sure. Funny? Occasionally. Not bad.
Scriptwriter Richard LaGravanese, who squeezed some of the glop out of The Bridges of Madison County for Clint Eastwood, here lays the rolling pin to a rambling family memoir by one Franz Lidz. What's left is a fairly familiar coming-of-age story about a kid, Steven Lidz (newcomer Nathan Watt), who loses his bearings when he learns his mother is dying of cancer. Presumably, his little sister (Kendra Krull) is equally traumatized, but the movie has little time for her. It does show us another well-meaning father who lacks the skills to help his son cope. Sid Lidz (frantic John Turturro) is an old-movie type--the bungling "genius" inventor living in a world of his own: eternally optimistic about how his "mild monsoon sprinkler" or retractable bedroom tent will change life in the age of science but incapable of handling emotion. When his beloved wife, Selma (Andie McDowell), falls ill, he simply closes her door and shuts out the children.
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"Is dad from another planet?" the kid asks.
Maybe. But his two uncles are from another galaxy. Hurt and scared, Steven runs away to the fleabag hotel where Arthur and Danny Lidz are holed up amid stacks of newspapers and boxes of junk. Encountering this pair, it's impossible not to think of the two badly damaged brothers in Terry Zwigoff's harrowing documentary about underground cartoonist R. Crumb. Arthur (Maury Chaykin), a round, grinning Forrest Gump, picks through garbage cans and gently bestows balls of string on his relatives. Paranoid Danny (Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards) collects rubber balls from sewer drains and imagines an anti-Semite lurking behind every lamppost.
Just the thing for young Steven. His uncles may be nuts, but they give him love, a release from his worries and a sense of childhood adventure that his father cannot fathom. They give the boy religion (he has his bar mitzvah in the fifth reel or so) and even a new first name--Franz--which suits his reinvention. Unfortunately, Keaton doesn't give us enough of them--despite the movie's title. Chaykin and Richards are more interesting to watch than the hyperactive Turturro, the scenically tragic McDowell or young Watt, a boy who could have done with a few more commercials and sitcoms before being thrown into this. It is the uncles who are supposed to reinvigorate the boy's shattered life. But they seem to drop in and out of the proceedings like uninvited guests, and their effects are minimized: One moment little Steven is the cipher of the seventh grade, unable to deliver a speech in front of his classmates. Ten minutes later he's Mr. Extrovert, belting out "The Internationale" while everyone else recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
The makeover is jarring. But then, so is Keaton's capacity for pulling our chains. For my money, the finest moment in Unstrung Heroes is stricken Selma Lidz's wordless goodbye to her family--she knows, we know, they don't--as she kisses each of them and Ray Charles's "You Are My Sunshine" swells up on the soundtrack. But too many other scenes ring false--a boys' prank that lands Danny in an asylum; the frenzied laboratory scenes with Turturro; a visit to the cemetery in which the three brothers lay gifts on their mother's grave; the moment Dad throws old home movies of Mom into the trash. No one's that insensitive to his child, not even the cruel stepfather of A Boy's Life.
In the end, we get what we've seen coming for a long time: The detached, well-armored father (once more, we think of Crumb) does even more growing up than his son, a broken family is reconstituted and life goes on. So, presumably, will Diane Keaton's directing career.