Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Family Business (1989)

Director: Sidney Lumet                                   Writer: Vincent Patrick
Film Score: Cy Coleman                                 Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring: Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick and Rosanna DeSoto

Sidney Lumet was a brilliant director. The guy could go from comedy to tragedy without blinking an eye, and many of his films are classics. And while Family Business may not be a classic, it’s a beautifully conceived comedy/drama that takes advantage of a great cast to raise it into something very entertaining. The film bombed at the box office for reasons that escape me. Criticism from reviewers at the time claimed the film couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a caper movie or a family drama, or harped on the fact that none of the principals who are supposed to be family look even remotely alike. But the telling thing for me is that video rentals of the film were very brisk and, I think, redeem the picture, making it clear that there is entertainment value to be had. It was also filmed at the end of the eighties and so for viewers today it has very little of the dated quality of many films from that decade.

The film begins with a Passover Seder at the home of Dustin Hoffman’s in-laws. His son, Matthew Broderick, is clearly on the outs with him, especially when he wants to bail out his grandfather Sean Connery, Hoffman’s father, out of jail. It turns out that the dysfunction in the family results from Connery’s criminal career in which he dragged Hoffman along as a kid. Hoffman did a year in prison as a result and never forgave him. But Broderick, who has dropped out of graduate school, has a caper he wants help with. A scientist at a genetics lab says he was fired unfairly and offers him a million dollars to steal the experiment he’s working on. Hoffman, of course, freaks out and refuses to have any part in the burglary. Connery, however, knows how to push his buttons and eventually gets him onboard, ostensibly to look out for Broderick. The caper is carefully orchestrated until Broderick forgets the lab book and, going back in for it, trips the alarm and is arrested. Hoffman is beside himself with guilt and the conclusion is actually pretty gut wrenching.

Of course the major hurdle to watching the picture is the supposed relationship of the three principals who seem to be from different planets rather than the same bloodline. The thing that is important to note, however, is that’s exactly the way the novel by Vincent Patrick was written. Lumet didn’t just cobble together a bunch of A-list talent and have a screenplay written around them; he chose those specific actors for the parts that were already in the screenplay. Given that, it’s actually a brilliant job of casting. What is apparent in this family tree is the dominance of the mother’s genetic contribution. While Connery is Scottish, his mother is Native American and his nomadic lifestyle is what drives his character. Hoffman’s mother was Italian and his facial characteristics and quasi-mob career definitely fit within that stereotype. Finally, Broderick’s mother is Jewish and he represents that aspect of his personality just fine. The acting itself, however, is something else again.

I like almost nothing that Matthew Broderick has been in, but this is a good one. The fact that Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman are assisting him is no doubt a big reason for my ability to tolerate him. His scenes with Sean Connery are fairly convincing, and Connery is very good with Hoffman. The three of them together, however, are an odd mix and the only time it really comes together and clicks is when Hoffman agrees to go on the caper and really becomes the character who was trained in crime by his father. The film moves along well and, though some critics have problems with the ending, it actually does make sense that Connery would make his own separate deal and spend the money. There is also a wonderful supporting cast, Rosanna DeSoto as Hoffman’s wife, the great Janet Carroll as Connery’s girlfriend, James Tolkan as a judge, Deborah Rush as a defense attorney, and Victoria Jackson in a bit part as Broderick’s girlfriend. Family Business is not a great film, but it is solid and entertaining if given a chance.

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