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[whitespace] 'What's Cooking'
Stuff Enuf: Julianne Margulies (left), Kyra Sedgwick (right) and Lanie Kazan wrestle with a big bird in 'What's Cooking?'

Family Fables

Too many films today want to tighten the bonds of family obligation--especially during the holidays

By Richard von Busack

I'D RATHER WATCH the silliest, most escapist fluff than sit through another family repaired by a dad quitting his job, taking some quality time or following the family-bonding advice of an unforgivably smug alien from K-PAX.

Why is it that the makers of today's movies insist on trying to bond us back to the family, right when we'd all drifted a nice comfortable distance? Blame Sen. Joseph Lieberman and his fellow campaigners for a cleaner cinema. That senatorial threat left directors, producers and actors with a task to fulfill, and no clear fix on how such a thing should be done. These men work 18-hour days--what do they know about kids?

The first step, they decided, is that teenagers should pluck out that facial jewelry--My First Mister, Life As a House--and do some construction work--House, Domestic Disturbance (even the thrillers are in on this scheme).

We have a male-dominated cinema, which is why fathers are always the ones hunting for their lost children. These searches represent a species of midlife-crisis movie. In the past, when actors hit 40, they'd perform in stories about middle-aged men diverted by carefree younger women who could see the sensitive soul buried behind the suit, the tie and the paunch.

Today these dissatisfied men are questing after what critic Geoffrey O'Brien has called "the golden child who has haunted the American imagination in these last decades ... the inner child, the abandoned child, the illuminated child."

It's not surprising that today's children have scant interest in these family-bonding films. (According to boxofficeguru.com, 73 percent of the audience for Domestic Disturbance was over 25.) Adolescents, notoriously humorless about their public image, aren't about to settle for movies about teens whipped into shape by their parents.

The late Samuel Z. Arkoff could have predicted how badly Life As a House and My First Mister would fare. The American International Productions czar told me in an interview that he'd concocted his teenage exploitationers as a reaction against what were then considered the proper fare for youth: Andy Hardy movies, in which the slightly rebellious Andy was brought into line by his kindly dad.

I thought of Arkoff as I walked out of Life As a House, burning mad, as mad as I'd ever been after battling with my mom: Didn't Life As a House director Irwin Winkler remember what it was like to be young?

Could it be that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Monsters, Inc. are hits because they concern families of choice, rather than families of blood? Harry is an orphan who finds surrogate brothers and sisters at Hogwarts School. And Monsters, Inc. is a straightforward monster/child bonding story.

Since the annual familial cease-fire at Thanksgiving is about to roll around, there are two movies that can be recommended as holiday viewing. Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking? is one studiously multiculti film. Still, it captures the pleasurably lazy rhythms of a Southern California Thanksgiving in four different keys: Jewish, Vietnamese, African American, Chicano.

It's fine food-porn, but nothing on the table is as piquant as Alfre Woodard's personification of the Thanksgiving willies. I've never seen a performance that so closely resembled my mom's habit of going stark raving mad every fourth Thursday in November.

Home for the Holidays (1995, directed by Jodie Foster) is already an alterna-Thanksgiving staple. Holly Hunter is pleasantly scratchy as a woman newly laid off--there's timeliness for you. Neither unemployment nor a terrific cold is enough excuse to keep her away from dinner with her taxing but not toxic family.

Robert Downey Jr. (never better) plays the gay brother with a taste for needling his relatives. During a telephone conversation back to civilization, he tells his friends: "You're my real family." I'd heard it said (I'd said it myself), but I'd never heard it said in a movie, and I never expected such an observation to go unpunished during the course of a movie.

Lately, a large local theater chain has been trying to comfort a shaky nation with patriotic trailers, accompanied by a boy-band's vocal chorus of "America the Beautiful." A kid smacks a baseball. A farmer holds up an amber stalk of grain to the light, as farmers like him have done for generations wherever TV commercials are aired.

If these images are ridiculously simplistic, maybe mocking them isn't fair. What they're selling here, after all, is something so vague no one can put a single image behind it. And like patriotism, Family with a capital F is a vague, slippery idea, meaning all things to all different people--and yet meaning these things passionately.

Once, children were told that the stork brought babies and dropped them down the chimney. This is exactly the case, writer G.K. Chesterton observed: As babies, we're dropped into strangers' houses, and we try our best to grow up around them. Like God or Love or Poetry, Family is impossible to sum up with a single photograph or scene. And, as the old Hollywood motto had it: If you make a film about symbols instead of people, you're sunk.

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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