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The über parents: (l-r) Russo and Quaid in Yours, Mine & Ours.

The Sloppy Bunch
By Laura Leon

Yours, Mine & Ours

Directed by Raja Gosnell

It’s perhaps embarrassing to admit that I’ve always remembered the theme song from the 1968 movie Yours, Mine and Ours since first seeing it at the drive-in with my own family, which, in size, sort of resembled the gigantic blended brood onscreen. That said, I also vividly recall the vague sense of unease, even embarrassment, at watching widower Frank Beardsley (Henry Fonda) and widow Helen North (Lucille Ball), obviously into middle age, having a child—their 19th in total—together. Blame it on that obvious hint of sexuality, something that no matter how well-preserved Fonda and Ball were, could only evoke icky thoughts—not just to me, the preschooler viewer, but also, in the film, to Frank and Helen’s older children.

Interestingly, however, it was that hint of sex well past wild youth that carried the movie’s innately subversive theme, something which is enunciated beautifully by Fonda’s character to his lovesick teen daughter as they try to get the laboring Helen to the car. It went something along the lines of, “You think love is all moonlight and roses, but look at it—it’s right here, right in front of you, in all the mess and noise and chaos. It’s waking up every morning and doing what you have to do, because that’s all that matters.”

Ultimately, what made the original film work so well (and I’ve verified this by having watched it this past weekend with my kids) was that its comic moments sprang from real-life situations, from two already large families having to come to terms with one another, to trying to get 18 kids out the door in time for the school bus. Unfortunately, the minds at work behind the remake, which stars Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid, felt it necessary to focus not so much on the organic humor of the situation, but more on staged instigations, each of which feels like a skit on a Nickelodeon show.

While Russo’s Helen and Quaid’s Frank seem instantly compatible and, to be sure, strike real sparks, the movie shies away from their relationship, both as newlyweds and co-parents, to the real detriment of the story. Instead, we are forced to endure too many scenes in which the North and Beardsley clans team up to destroy their parents’ new marriage, which basically means wreaking havoc on the house with paint, feathers, or barnyard animals. We are treated to the sight of Frank falling into a container of slimy goo not once, but twice; it does not make the situation doubly hilarious. Consider this comparison: In the 1968 version, a breakfast scene delightfully highlighted the real chaos that would exist at such a rowdy table, punctuated by the fact that the runt of the litter is unable to grab hold of something to eat until it’s time to go, at which point he gets reprimanded for being a slowpoke. Move ahead 37 years, and the same scene is used to show a North kid upsetting oatmeal onto a Beardsley boy’s homework.

Screenwriters Ron Burch and David Kidd try too hard to make humor out of Frank’s and Helen’s diverse parenting styles—he’s a military man fond of keeping things, including the kids, “shipshape,” whereas she is a bohemian who doesn’t get fazed by clutter, even when it’s watermelon smashed on the stairs. From this, they try to knead more funnies by having the North kids try to act spick-and-span, and the Beardsley kids messy, and again, it just falls flat. Obviously, with 18 young characters, it’s hard to differentiate or explore many of them as individuals, but at least in the first movie, there was a moving subplot involving Helen’s attempts to reach out to Frank’s oldest son (Tim Matheson). What suffices for character development in the 2005 version is the ethnic diversity of Helen’s adopted kids. In the end, we’re left with a picture of a very fractured family with the kids versus the parents, none of it particularly amusing or heartfelt.

Pretty Vacant

Rent

Directed by Chris Columbus

Most of the print expended on this adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway musical is heavy with cultural baggage. Rock & roll people say it’s not “rock” enough. New York City-based snobs decry this representation of a long-lost Lower East Side as irrelevant. Larson haters—they’re still out there, nearly a decade after his death—suggest that, well, he was a phony anyway who “borrowed” too much from his collaborators.

Why does Rent make some people so cranky? So it’s artificial; it’s a musical. No one would mistake Puccini’s opera La Boheme, which Rent is very loosely based on, as a trenchant portrait of European bohemia. Politically, Rent is multicultural in the most shiny, happy, not-very- threatening way—but, please, it’s a Broadway musical. You want realism, you’re looking for it in the wrong place: The ending is predictable almost to the point of self-parody.

Having never seen (nor heard a cast recording of) any stage production, I was new to Rent. The music is mostly good. At times, as in the meet-cute ditty “Light My Candle,” or the hilarious ode to jealousy “Tango: Maureen,” or the dreamy escapism of “Santa Fe,” it’s excellent. Of course, there are clunkers, too—the performance art number (“Over the Moon”) was truly painful, and its setting, painfully dated.

The cast, made up mostly of holdovers from the original Broadway production, are engaging. Best are Anthony Rapp as the geeky filmmaker, Mark; Jesse L. Martin as cool math prof Tom Collins; and Wilson Jermaine Heredia as the drag queen/doggie hit man. The surprise is Rosario Dawson as Mimi. While Dawson has never been bad in a film, this is the first time she’s had enough of a part to really show off her skills—and she can sing, too.

Even with all this going for it, Rent must be judged a dud. The blame belongs completely to director Chris Columbus. This supreme hack, best known for his work for John Hughes (Home Alone) and on the first two Harry Potter flicks, doesn’t show the slightest evidence that he’s ever even seen a movie musical, let alone have the vaguest idea of how to direct one. For no good reason, he opens the film with the cast singing on a theater stage. His attempts to open up the show include a ridiculous sojourn in New Mexico that wasn’t worth the trip. His staging of the performance-art set piece proves that he doesn’t know anything about that form either. As filmed, Rent is just one song after another, with a murky storyline and no momentum. Dear Hollywood: Please don’t hire Chris Columbus anymore. He’s hurting American moviegoers.

—Shawn Stone

Slick and Thin

The Ice Harvest

Directed by Harold Ramis

Directed by Harold Ramis from an adaptation by novelist-screenwriter Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and Robert Benton (who adapted Russo’s Nobody’s Fool), The Ice Harvest would seem to be a prestige project. Starring John Cusack and Billie Bob Thornton—actors with a guaranteed knack for snappy repartee—as two bottom feeders trying to pull off a big score, it’s likely that Ramis intended the film as a satirical crime drama in the mode of Get Shorty. It’s not. Get Shorty was about something: namely, Hollywood and the similarities between the movie industry and organized crime. Despite its tough-guy, Elmore Leonard-like dialogue, The Ice Harvest isn’t about anything other than two sleazebags and a bag of stolen money.

Cusack plays Charlie, a low-level lawyer for the mob. Thornton is Vic, his porn-dealer cohort. When the movie opens, Charlie has just filched $2 million in cash from his mobster employer. Vic hides the money while Charlie goes to celebrate at his favorite strip joint, which is owned by Renata (Connie Nielson, vamping like Kathleen Turner), whose curvaceous hair and other attributes loosen Charlie’s discretion to a foolhardy degree.

Charlie’s seedy orbit of low-rent strip clubs and their downtrodden denizens is depressing rather than intriguingly grimy; the film doesn’t plumb the depths of society for unexpected poignancy or dangerous tests of mettle (a la Leonard), rather, it just skates along the scurvy surface. In a pointless analogy, Charlie’s car slides around the streets of Wichita; an icy rain has made driving drunk especially hazardous. This is supposed to be an issue of some import, because Charlie spends portions of the night at the local watering hole for politicos, where he has drinks with his pal Pete (Oliver Platt). Since Pete is repulsively and self- destructively inebriated, Charlie’s craving for his company is a mystery, and not a very interesting one. The only thing the two men have in common is that Pete is married to Charlie’s money-grubbing ex-wife.

The mobster (Randy Quaid) knows who stole his money, and in due course, he closes in. This long night of cat-and-mouse happens to be Christmas Eve, and the trappings of the holiday are used to make the low-life setting even more dispiriting: At one point, Charlie runs into his kids and responds with apathy. The plot can be summarized as kill-the-other-guy-before-he-kills-you, with an occasional stab at Tarantino-style gruesome absurdity. One blackly humorous scenario concerns a trunk with a not-quite-dead body inside.

Ramis proves that he can direct hard-boiled action as well as the next crime-noir-journeyman, and as usual, Cusack is good company: He turns a thoroughly unlikable and spineless character into someone you might agree to have a drink with (if he were buying). But these are minuscule compensations in a film that’s about as enjoyable as rancid eggnog.

—Ann Morrow


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