Paul Reiser, who wrote, produced, and stars in the new film, The Thing About My Folks, calls it "a fictional story based on real Jews." Indeed, it could be described as Jerry Seinfeld meets Woody Allen—but with a strong moral center. But such reductionism would negate the film's delightful and original take on a baby boomer (Reiser) and his confusing relationship with his earthy, salesman father, played by Peter Falk.
Reiser's real-life dad was a huge fan of Falk, and Reiser inherited that appreciation. In conceiving his film, Reiser did not consider any other actor to play the role of his father.
The result is one of the most delightful collaborations to hit the big screen in a long time. Falk and Reiser are immediately believable as they tentatively attempt to cross the generation bridge that's kept them from intimacy. Sam, the father, has spent his life building up his carpet business from "two guys with a clipboard and a desk," to a thriving concern that provided a secure life for a son and three daughters. The kids, including Ben (Reiser), had the best of everything and went on to college, all compliments of dad. Like so many men of his generation, Sam returned from the war and grabbed every opportunity for success. But that success came with a price. Sam's Greatest Generation emerged from the double challenges of the Depression and WWII with a fierce work ethic. His idea of a good father was a hard worker who saved money and provided for his family. Ben, like so many boomers exempted from that life-and-death struggle, is in therapy trying to find himself. Sam figures that he knows exactly where he is, thank you very much.
When Sam's wife (Olympia Dukakis) abruptly leaves him after forty-seven years of marriage, he is dumbfounded; he simply can't understand what he has done that would drive his wife away. All those years when he was traveling or working late, he was sweating away to build a better life for his family. He was not a womanizer, a drinker or a gambler. By his standards, he was an exemplary husband. Why can't everybody see that? His three daughters, on the other hand, are surprised that their mother didn't leave earlier. Ben is confused and conflicted.
This premise is not new; it's been done before, but rarely with such finesse and tenderness, or with such riotously funny dialogue. There is hardly a false note as Sam and Ben embark on a road trip in upstate New York. Ben laments that his father never did the usual guy things with him as he grew up. Where was the fishing and camping? "You want fishing? Let's fish," Sam says defiantly. They outfit themselves with stylish vests, waders and hats, and end up standing in a swiftly moving stream, looking hysterically out of place. Likewise, the camping leaves something to be desired.
In an interview at the Seattle Film Festival, Reiser said his script took "twenty years and six weeks to write." He found an early draft where he was twenty-seven and his dad was fifty-five. "Now I'm forty-nine and Peter is seventy-nine. Soon it will be impossible to find a living actor old enough to play my father." So in six weeks he wrote a new script and began shooting. Like a fine wine, Reiser's vision has matured. It has body and a sweet finish. It's the kind of movie that wouldn't have come off as warm or wise had it been made earlier in Reiser's career. His love for his father is evident throughout, and it's a love that has grown with age and wisdom.
The heart of the movie is built upon a childhood misunderstanding of his parents' marriage that has haunted Ben all his life. Like so many of what George Orwell called "the almost lunatic misunderstandings of childhood," it is built on a bit of truth, magnified and distorted out of all proportion. If a child confides such a misunderstanding to a loving adult, it can be placed back within the realm of reason. It can be given clarity, enabling the child to evolve his sense of the world. But Ben the adult still sees his parents' marriage through the flawed observations of a child. His loyalties are conflicted as he imagines a marital struggle that is far from the truth.
Director Raymond De Felitta handles the material with love and care. A movie that revolves mainly around two men talking could have become visually stale, but De Felitta sets most of the action in upstate New York, just when the autumn leaves are in their glory. Father and son cruise in a convertible along winding country roads, crossing rivers and streams. They visit a line-dancing country-western saloon. De Felitta avoids what he calls CRS (Camera Restlessness Syndrome) in favor of a simple and masterful use of camera that does not get in the way of the actors. It's an excellent example of doing great work without letting your technique show. The chemistry between Falk and Reiser, complemented by an insightful, moving script, allows this character-driven movie to unfold without gimmicks. We feel that we are watching real people in real situations.
Dukakis, as Sam's wife Muriel, turns in a moving performance in her brief scenes and gives the film weight, depth and resolution. Elizabeth Perkins, Mackenzie Connolly and Lydia Jordan are the busybody sisters whose sibling rivalry and filial love remain intact in middle age. They sparkle. The father, mother, and siblings are as different from one another as they could be, but they function as a noisy, loving family.
Most movies are targeted at teenagers and young adults, with the hope that children and older folks will buy tickets as well. The Thing About My Folks will probably play well to younger audiences, but it is that rare gift of a film that, like a deftly nuanced book, explores the deep issues that adults face as their parents age. But while it deals with weighty issues, it's just a lot of fun. The Seattle Film Festival audience howled with delight. Falk is a gruff curmudgeon, but not in the trite, condescending way that reduces so many old people to stereotypes. His gruffness and humor make him more, not less, human. Reiser has given us a film that makes us laugh while contemplating the ways we understand and misunderstand those we love.Discussion starters
- How well do you understand your relationship with each of your own parents? What elements of those relationships are similar to, or different from, that of Sam and Ben?
- Do you think that current parent-child relationships will escape the generation gap that baby boomers experienced?
- How much detail should kids have about the trials of their parents' marriage?
- Why do men, even fathers and sons, seem to have such a hard time becoming intimate with one another?
- How is the work ethic of your father or son the same as, or different from, Sam's or Ben's?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Thing About My Folks is a warm-hearted, loving and redemptive film. It does contain a fair amount of coarse but not obscene language which develops Sam's gruff character.
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from Film Forum, 09/22/05
Paul Reiser, best known for his work on the TV show "Mad About You" and his role in Aliens, wrote and starred in a comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta called The Thing About my Folks. The movie co-stars Peter Falk, and it has been earning less-than-enthusiastic reviews from mainstream critics.
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) is displeased with "the foul language, drug and alcohol content, and sexual situations that get a hefty amount of screen time." He says that's unfortunate, because of "the redeeming qualities found in this well-crafted, superbly acted indie flick. … The Thing About My Folks doesn't just commend strong marriages and tight-knit families, it honors them by casting aside the notion that affairs, material wealth or career aspirations could ever come close to replacing what God intended as the core of society. And in doing so, it holds up such virtues as faithfulness, perseverance, commitment, hope, forgiveness, acceptance and honesty."