Dysfunction Junction at Douglas Reunion

Kirk Douglas may no longer be Spartacus, but he’s not ready for a plot at Forest Lawn, either. At 86 years old-when tummy tucks don’t work, apples don’t bite, careers don’t survive and X-rays don’t lie-this living legend is both fighting the debilitating effects of a stroke and ready for his closeups. Having outlived almost every director, screenwriter, cameraman and co-star in a film career that started in 1946, Mr. Douglas has nobody left from his own era to make movies with-so, for his 86th film in his 86th year, he has turned to his own relatives. The result is It Runs in the Family , a funny, articulate, imperfect, sometimes messy, often infuriatingly sentimental, but always caring and spirited movie about three generations of a New York family named Gromberg, played by three generations of a show-business family named Douglas. At a time in movie history when so many films are hateful, pointless, bloodless and just plain stupid, a project full of life and affirmation featuring this many likable pros is downright gratifying.

The dysfunctional Grombergs appear to be grounded and successful, except with each other. Communication is not their strength, and as the roles shift and refocus in their separate lives, holding onto a semblance of structure and family unity becomes more daunting every day. Michael Douglas plays attorney Alex Gromberg, a husband and father in the middle of a midlife crisis, torn between his responsibility for the other needy and demanding members of his family and his duty to himself. He lives in a 4,000-foot loft with his wife, Rebecca (Bernadette Peters), a psychologist who has a full plate of her own between family and patients, and two sons, ages 11 and 21. The youngest son, Eli (Rory Culkin), has a wild imagination and limited dreams; he just hopes he can survive to the age of 12. The eldest son, Asher (played by Mr. Douglas’ own son Cameron), is a drug-dealing slacker with no parental guidance who is a neat cross between teenage terror and macho swagger. Alex’s own aging parents are his cantankerous father, Mitchell (played by Kirk), whose stroke only makes his adjustment to forced retirement harder on everyone else at the dinner table, and Evelyn, his strong, patrician peacemaker of a mother (played by Michael’s own mother, Diana Douglas), who spends half of her time trying to hold the family together and the other half on a dialysis machine at Columbia University. With so many joys, strengths, fears, problems, angers, losses and changes to unravel every time the Grombergs get together, it’s no wonder every Seder ends in chaos.

It’s a family affair, on-screen and off. Kirk and Michael Douglas, so different and so much alike in looks and temperament, do a great job of establishing the need for generational approval. They’ve had experience. Diana Douglas, who retired from acting years ago, is still distinguished, lovely, proud and the possessor of good bones. So why has she been photographed so badly? It’s not her fault. Everyone in this film looks like pork tartare. (Bernadette Peters, saddled with wrinkles and bags that do not exist in real life, should sue the cameraman.) On the plus side, the script by newcomer Jesse Wigutow, the direction by ace Australian director Fred Schepisi, and the ensemble performances inject the trajectory of the movie with the kind of realism you don’t get much these days, but which used to be quite prevalent on the live television dramas of the 1950’s. For the most part, It Runs in the Family takes its time and seems quite thorough in the way it reveals character and establishes relationships. Then something unsettling happens: As the film progresses to its conclusion, lugging in plot points like overweight carry-on bags on a flight to nowhere, it all seems rushed. It’s as though somebody said, “Let’s make up for lost time.” With only minutes to go until the end credits, Rebecca goes ballistic after going through Alex’s pockets and finding a pair of panties that are not her own; meanwhile Asher is busted for growing marijuana plants on the terrace, and the buttoned-down Eli finds a pierced Goth girlfriend and flees the school prom pursued by violent thugs on skateboards. By the time Mitchell and Alex perform last rites on a dead uncle by dragging him to a lake and staging their own illegal cremation, it doesn’t matter how noble and supportive the audience’s intentions have been: This movie seriously falls on its ass.

These are some of the frustrations plaguing a movie that should have been better than it is. The Douglas family provides many small, touching moments filled with small, touching details. It’s painful to watch the man who played Vikings, cowboys, boxers and Vincent Van Gogh trying to jog around the Central Park reservoir on crumpled legs, but he’s lost none of his fearless courage or creative spark. The speed of the leader is the speed of the gang, and Kirk Douglas still leads with a force and a fury as thrilling as it is convincing. His family reunion is one occasion that I sometimes found myself wanting to escape-but in the long haul, I was happy to be invited.

A Striking Debut

Another movie this week that engages the emotions and makes perfect sense-don’t get excited, it’s not a trend-is Blue Car , a remarkable debut feature by a strikingly talented new writer-director named Karen Moncrieff, about the awkward, muddled and potentially dangerous psychological impact of the hunger for love on people of all ages, but especially on an 18-year-old girl whose need for affection leads to a shattering emotional encounter. Meg (Agnes Bruckner) is a sensitive, intelligent high-school senior whose life has been severely impacted by an overworked, inattentive, manic-depressive mother (the excellent Margaret Colin). Quiet and damaged, Meg takes refuge in poetry when her father deserts the family and drives away in a blue car. At home, her grief leaves her in a rage, trapped in the responsibility of caring for a younger sister who cuts and mutilates herself for attention. At school, her self-loathing and confusion find expression in poems in which she equates herself with rust, decay and dead leaves. The only person with empathy is Mr. Auster, her compassionate English teacher and a writer working on a first novel (brilliantly played by the subtle, complex and charismatic veteran actor David Strathairn), who encourages her to find strength, value and pride in her own work. Inspired by his enthusiasm for her talent, Meg lets the imagery pour out and is invited to a major teenage poetry competition in Florida. Mr. Auster coaches her himself, sharing his lunch hours and even his lunch, opening up a brighter world than Meg has ever known at home-one where she is supported, challenged, stimulated and appreciated.

As the date draws near for the most exciting thing that has ever happened in her sad, empty life-a trip her mother refuses to finance-Meg plots a way to get herself to the finals in Florida. Obstacles threaten from every shadow: Her sister commits suicide. Meg loses her job for stealing. Her mom loses her grip on reality and throws her out. The drug-dealing brother of a school chum promises her a ride, than takes her savings and leaves her stranded. She hocks her mom’s diamond ring for bus fare. At the same time, her relationship with Mr. Auster intensifies. Attractions grow; the roles of teacher and pupil blur. But Mr. Auster is married, with a son Meg’s age. Only in Florida, where she is forced to sleep on the beach, does Meg face her moment of truth. Mr. Auster–the teacher she worships, the only father figure she knows-reveals flaws and human weaknesses that disillusion her idealism and change her life. But the strength of this story is in the freshness of its observances of human nature, and the lack of cliché with which it resolves potential tragedy with the restorative resilience of youth.

Ms. Moncrieff’s mature direction distills nuanced performances from her actors to tell a well-balanced, compelling and enlightening story with refreshing candor. The characters are vivid and precise. Meg, a cinematic second cousin to the tortured teenager in White Oleander , finds a stalwart champion in Agnes Bruckner, a terrific young actress who displays a smoldering equilibrium between the girl’s ambition, integrity and independence. David Strathairn manages the impossible task of making a fraudulent role model bordering on corruption and deceitfulness seem utterly human, sympathetic and forgivable. Mr. Auster’s unhappy marriage and secret failure as a creative writer render him as vulnerable and heartbreaking as his pupil, and Mr. Strathairn’s portrayal of the teacher’s trembling, pathetic attempt at seduction provides a magnificent counterpart to the inexperienced but precocious Meg. It’s pulse-quickening to watch this fine actor evolve slowly from a trusted authority figure to a more poignant and conflicted human being. The characters are the soul of this intimate film, and Ms. Moncrieff’s ultimate suspension of moral judgment wisely allows the viewer to identify with them in ways that left me profoundly moved. Blue Car is a strange, understated study of the power of people to follow their own irregular paths, survive their mistakes with grace, and still not quite fit into their allotted spaces in life.

Remembering Mabel Mercer

Mabel Mercer is widely acknowledged as the mother of the American popular art song. The swanky rooms she christened-Tony’s, the Byline, RSVP, the Blue Angel-had disappeared by the time I arrived on the scene. But I spent many nights in her company, learning how lyrics should be interpreted, emptying my pockets to fork over stiff tariffs at the St. Regis, surrounded by Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Warren Beatty, Peggy Lee, Leontyne Price, Eileen Farrell, Margaret Whiting, Lena Horne, Bobby Short, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Cy Coleman and all the swellegant night people Who Knew Things. I was her fan, friend and devoted slave from the day I first heard her sing to the morning she died at 84 in 1984, two days before Easter, leaving legions of her musical acolytes orphaned. Today, the sophisticated era of Mabel and her songs would largely be forgotten were it not for Donald Smith’s Mabel Mercer Foundation and the annual cabaret conventions it sponsors, as well as the wonderful recordings she made (which act as master classes for younger generations of singers and musicians) and the handful of excellent cabaret artists who perpetuate the magic of Mabel with tributes to the perfection of her timeless art.

One of them is Joyce Breach, a tasteful song stylist of rare sensitivity and intelligence, who hangs her soul on Mabel’s moon with elegant results that take you off-balance. You can experience her passion for songs, impeccable mastery of lyrics and scholarly devotion to quality at closer range on a new CD called Remembering Mabel Mercer (Audiophile), and in person at 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday of this week at Danny’s Skylight Room, in the heart of Restaurant Row on West 46th Street. In an age of push, noise and forgettable hard-sell tunes, Ms. Breach has chosen her repertoire the way Mabel pruned her roses in Chatham. With the husky warmth of Courvoisier in front of an open country hearth, her voice returns us to the refined days of enchantment and craft. Apple-cheeked and ample of bosom, with a fondness for Mabel’s stools and shawls, she’s a native of Pittsburgh approaching middle vintage who gives every indication of having lived the subtexts she’s singing about in the songs by Bart Howard, Cy Coleman and Cole Porter that nobody ever hears often enough to suit me. With her generosity of spirit and heaven-sent love of words, Ms. Breach holds a magnifying glass to a kinder, softer, saner time in New York nightlife, when Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio held hands and fell in love in corner tables in the back of the Blue Angel, listening to the songs of Mabel Mercer. Like her mentor, Ms. Breach gets to the aesthetics of her repertoire, examining each stanza, turning both the rueful, obscure ballads like “If You Leave Paris” and “Look at Him” and the swinging vintage standards like “From This Moment On” into one-act musical scenarios with polish and brio. Her singing is technically flawless and emotionally wrenching, and the life she breathes again into Mabel Mercer’s legendary classics-pristinely arranged and accompanied by the first-string pianist, Keith Ingham-deserves a much wider audience.

Clearly, she was too big for Pittsburgh, but oh so beguiling in New York.