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It Runs in the Family

Three generations of a dysfunctional family-- played by Michael Douglas and his family--go through bad times, good times and average times.


Like most American families, the Grombergs are a little dysfunctional, despite their amazing loft apartment, sensational Apple computers and successful family law firm. Middle-aged Alex (Michael Douglas) is what his son Asher (Cameron Douglas) calls a ''soggy cracker'': a corporate attorney who's always worried about something, he works in a soup kitchen and takes pro bono work to assuage his middle-class guilt over his day job. He also struggles to understand his oldest son, who's a failure in college but does well enough as a drug dealer and DJ. Alex's father, Mitchell (Kirk Douglas), meanwhile, is your standard powerbroker-cum-bored-retiree; he founded the law firm where Alex now works, and if Alex's whining is to be believed, spent most of his time there while his son was growing up and definitely didn't do much understanding. These three main characters are so self-absorbed that it's not surprising the story of their lives comes off about as interesting as a soup-soaked Saltine; thank goodness for mom Rebecca (Bernadette Peters), who manages at least on occasion to be something other than tolerant, and uptight second son Eli (Rory Culkin), a karate champion with a crush on the class runaway, a sixth-grade goth girl.


Interestingly, it's young Culkin, of that other famous Hollywood clan, who steals the show with a deadpan delivery that would make Jerry Seinfeld proud. His performance aside, It Runs in the Family is notable for its four-for-the-price-of-one special on Douglases: There's grandpa Kirk, his ex-wife Diana as the grandmother of the clan, son Michael and grandson Cameron in his first role. If you thought it would be creepy watching a family of Douglases play a family on the big screen, you were right. It's beyond creepy--it's uncanny, in that is-this-real-or-is-this-a-movie kind of way, and the acting style is eerily familiar, too. Everybody wants to be the good guy, everybody wants to say the punch line, and nobody wants to take any chances. Still, the Douglases seems to take great joy in their own movie and in working together, and that brings a certain joy to the audience; despite its pervasive cherish-your-family theme, there are moments when it doesn't go over the top, and these are charming--if few and far between.


Director Fred Schepisi makes ubiquitous use of several generations of Douglas family photos to punctuate various scenes in the film--usually the ones where we're supposed to realize how much they love each other and learn what family really means. The audience is meant to come away with a nice, smarmy sense of the quirky little realities of this ''everyfamily,'' but just in case you didn't get it, the characters--like the actors--don't take any chances that might make you question just how ''nice'' they really are; they resist any real rebellion or risk, and there's always someone willing to try to understand if they do occasionally screw up. Aside from making for a pretty dull film, it doesn't ring particularly true. For all the actors are really a family, they don't seem very comfortable with one another on the screen, so their characters' squabbles and heartfelt admissions come off stilted and forced, their reactions seem too controlled and their relationships, ironically, don't give the audience a sense of any real bond between them.

Bottom Line

Four Douglases, three generations of dysfunctional family angst, and two decent performances add up to one lukewarm movie in It Runs in the Family.