Documentaries Carry the Day

Regardless of how cool the weather gets outside, the dismal junk that’s showing up every Friday on theater marquees proves that at the movies, at least, the dreaded dog days of summer have arrived. Since it grieves me to watch accomplished artists like Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman trashing their talents for cash and deferred percentage points in comic-book foozle like X2, and since I haven’t the remotest intention of suffering through Keanu Reeves and the torture of another Matrix ( Reloaded , indeed!), I’m wondering what there is to talk about. I have wisely avoided exposure to Eddie Murphy’s comic anemia in Daddy Day Care , and I walked out on the spastic Jim Carrey in the middle of his nauseating Bruce Almighty . Even the children are up to their backpacks in rubbish. Disney’s computer-animated Finding Nemo is a parboiled kettle of Australian fish about a baby marlin separated from its father in the Great Barrier Reef and thrown into the fish tank of a dentist’s office overlooking Sydney harbor. In Rugrats Go Wild , the moronic TV characters join forces with the Wild Thornberrys to lower a few million more I.Q. points, and I dare anyone of any age to sit through Pokémon Heroes , Dumb and Dumberer or Terminator 3 . No man, woman, child or gender-challenged variation thereof with a brain that still functions will find this an intelligent, trouble-free summer of sterling entertainment.

Remaking any film is a crime against logic and sensibility, but there should be an actual law-cruelly equivalent to the smoking ban-against remaking bad films that were never worth making the first time around. The latest case in point is The In-Laws . Still reeling from the dopey, pointless Down with Love , a calamitous attempt to retro-gaze at the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies that were already dated four decades ago, I ask wincingly: Does anyone behind a Hollywood power player’s desk in 2003 ever really laugh at anything funny? The In-Laws was pretty banal stuff in 1979, when it was directed by Arthur Hiller, with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk as a bewildered dentist and a loopy C.I.A. agent hauling stolen Treasury engravings through a Central American banana-joke republic just before their kids’ wedding. The bloated, boring remake changes the Alan Arkin character, here played by Albert Brooks, to a foot doctor for no apparent reason except that the misguided writer-director, Andrew Fleming, must think bungling podiatrists are funnier than nervous dentists. What difference does it make, if the movie turns out to be a cinematic root canal? The C.I.A. agent remains the same, although the startled and unconvincing Michael Douglas plays him like he’s falling from a twin-engine Cessna without a parachute. The desperation of the participants to make more of this benign farce than was evident on paper soaks through every scene like flop sweat.

In the opening gambit, Mr. Douglas makes a daring escape from a Czech danger zone, promising some kind of delivery there by Sunday. But Sunday is also the day of his only son’s wedding. Miraculously, the deep-cover operative dodges the bullets of Interpol killers in Prague, lands his flaming plane in Nova Scotia, and arrives in Chicago to meet the new in-laws for dinner in a Chinese restaurant populated by the kind of Oriental spies that went out of style with Anna May Wong. Mr. Brooks does the Woody Allen bit as a square, anally retentive fussbudget who is such a hypochondriac that he wears a fanny pack containing a sanitary drinking cup to avoid germs and a couple of Lorna Doones to raise his blood sugar between meals. As soon as he takes one look at the dinner of barbecued boa constrictor, he yelps, “Have you seen the Discovery Channel? This is one of the stars!” (These are the jokes, and you learn to savor them, because there’s a lot of dead air in between.) Before Mr. Brooks can declare the wedding off, Mr. Douglas drags him along on a mission to rescue a Russian runaway named Olga (more about that later). The hapless podiatrist wakes up in a stolen jet on automatic pilot that belongs to Barbra Streisand and gets mistaken for a world crime leader known as “Fat Cobra” by a gay arms dealer (the excellent British actor David Suchet, clearly slumming), who falls madly in love with the horrified Mr. Brooks and kidnaps the entire wedding party to get him back.

Enter Mr. Douglas’ ex-wife, a nut-brained throwback to the beatnik years who arrives from an ashram (a humiliated Candace Bergen, sporting the frizziest humidity-fried hair this side of the Suez Canal), and his foxy assistant (Robin Tunney), who kick-boxes, makes tough-gal remarks (“We got the F.B.I. on us like trailer trash on Velveeta”) and looks like cable-TV reporter Ashleigh Banfield. As the movie drags on, flailing for laughs, the Russian runaway named Olga turns out to be a submarine in Lake Michigan, and Mr. Brooks-a man who won’t even buy a foreign car-is stalked by the government for buying and selling Russian nuclear missiles. Before it all limps to its wooden-legged conclusion, the prospective fathers-in-law manage to fall off the top of the Hancock Tower in the middle of the wedding rehearsal.

There is more, but you’ve had enough, and so have I. Humdrum direction fails to elevate an already bankrupt idea from its relentless doldrums. The moldy dialogue and steadfastly humorless performers (especially Mr. Douglas, who appears in various stages of misery, from contrition to anger, and never brings his character alive) don’t help, although Mr. Brooks’ nonstop tics and neuroses do produce a few chuckles, especially when he flees from the arms of the macho arms dealer in a hot tub, wearing nothing but a red thong. But the laughs are small and few, and the sight of Ms. Bergen reduced to a screeching parody of the nagging wife with a Buddhist monk in tow is enough to make you weep. The In-Laws is too silly to be aggressively offensive; it’s just outstandingly dull and ordinary as it makes a brief mall stop on its way to a Blockbuster shelf near you.

Great Neck Bombshell

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that the best new films are documentaries? Capturing the Friedmans is a fascinating and disturbing probe into the conviction of a respectable Long Island father and his 18-year-old son on charges of child molestation. It’s fascinating because you’ve never seen a more dysfunctional family in broad daylight, and it’s disturbing because it straddles the fine line between responsible filmmaking and callous sensationalism (to say nothing of invasion of privacy) in ways some viewers may find morally reprehensible. On the day before Thanksgiving, 1987, the affluent citizens of Great Neck, Long Island, were blasted out of their complacency by shocking news: Arnold Friedman, a retired schoolteacher, former bandleader, father of three sons and respected member of the community, and his youngest son, Jesse, a high-school student, were both dragged out of their home in handcuffs and charged with more than 100 counts of sodomy and other sexual abuses.

Their accusers were a group of boys who had been taking after-hours computer lessons in Mr. Friedman’s basement. The bail was set at $1 million for Arnold Freedman and $300,000 for Jesse. In the months that followed, the tabloids poisoned the world against them, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence of abuse. The Nassau County Police claimed there were stacks of child porn all over the house; others say this wasn’t true. Parents who defended the Friedmans or simply refused to join in their persecution-because their own children scoffed at the charges-were accused of being “in denial.” Great Neck became a victimized community fueled by hysteria and chaos, and the Friedman family was destroyed. Arnold Friedman pleaded guilty and was sentenced as a pedophile to 10 to 30 years in prison-the maximum sentence-where he apparently committed suicide in 1995 to provide Jesse with $250,000 in life-insurance money. His son was left to face his own trial alone-lied to by the police, convicted by a prejudiced jury and only recently released after serving 13 years. And after 33 years of marriage, Jesse’s mother-who remains baffled and disoriented to this day-deserted and divorced Arnold, remarried and moved to the Berkshires. The rest of the family has never forgiven her. Hers is the saddest interview in the film, but her other two sons-David, who now works as a popular New York party clown, and Seth, who fled to California and refused to take part in this film-are also clearly impacted by the tragedy that still haunts them.

Were the Friedmans heinous monsters who preyed on the flesh of young boys, or guileless victims of mass hysteria? Were the police all insane? Since nobody knows the answers, it isn’t clear what the director, Andrew Jarecki, wants us to take away from this harrowing slam-dunk into ugliness and sorrow. Nobody tells the same story twice; everyone has a different version of the facts. But the amazing thing is that the Friedmans cast worse doubts on their innocence than any of their accusers by sharing a massive library of their own home movies, exposing the history of their rage and emotional turbulence better than any director could. They’re seeking redemption and closure, but their candor has the reverse effect. As the self-destructive architects of their own downfall, the Friedmans do a persuasive job of tearing down the masonry that holds any family together, on a scale rivaling Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman . Lurid, pathetic and desperate for compassion, they make sad, reluctant voyeurs of us all.

Saving the Children

Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII is a sobering, complex and emotion-filled tribute to the “hidden” Jewish children of World War II and the humanitarian rescuers who helped save their lives. At the beginning of the war, a million and a half Jewish children lived in Europe; fewer than one out of 10 survived. One who did was Aviva Slesin, the Academy Award-winning director of The Ten Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table and a hidden child herself. More than 50 years after the war ended, Ms. Slesin was reunited with the woman who rescued her from a Lithuanian ghetto when she was 9 months old. The emotional impact inspired her to make this film about the experiences of other hidden children. It’s a wrenching but life-affirming work of great integrity and proficiency.

By 1942, Hitler’s “final solution” to kill off every Jew in Europe was in full force. Many Jewish parents naïvely believed that the Nazis would never do anything to harm children. They were wrong. But some doomed parents decided to hide their children in an effort to save their lives, and they turned to resistance groups and the anti-Nazi underground for help. The people who responded-risking death themselves to help Jewish children-are impossible to categorize: They were rich and poor, college-educated and working-class, farmers and housewives, Christians and Communists. Some made a financial profit; some converted their wards from Judaism to other religions; a few were abusive. But the horror stories are rare. Mostly, they were people who couldn’t resist a cry for help from an innocent child if it meant the difference between life and death. Interspersing extraordinary black-and-white archival footage and color interviews with the handful of adults who are still alive from that period, Ms. Slesin follows them back to Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Poland, constructing a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the people who defied the odds and stood up for human decency in a paralyzing climate of terror.

Rescuers tell of hiding boys in broom closets when the Germans came around to check them for circumcision. The grown-up children remember loving the joy of Christmas and learning Hebrew at the same time. Some were able to assume new identities and live almost normal lives in the open. Others spent years hiding in holes in the floor, or sitting on wooden stools inside armoires, enduring childhood in total silence. A few grew up feeling punished and abandoned. The daughter of one rescuer admits she’s been in a resentful rage her entire life because the endangered Jewish children required so much attention that she felt deprived of her own mother’s unconditional love. After the war, some children were reunited with their natural parents, others were adopted by the non-Jews who hid them, many struggled with guilt, denial and shame, and none would ever be the same. You’d think the books would be closed by now, but the psychological damage was so severe that this chapter in history will undoubtedly survive even the people who recorded it. For those who feel they cannot bear one more heartbreaking Holocaust film of any kind, it’s important to note that Secret Lives is blessed with a mercurial spirit as restorative as it is courageous. Most movies today are nothing, a zero-you forget them by the time you hit the exit door. This one is a profound, truthful, sensitively made (though not overly sentimental) and miraculous 72-minute celebration of heroism and humanity in a time when there was not enough of either.