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The Thing About My Folks

Who Needs This Headache?

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In his latest riff on being a slightly neurotic, slightly Jewish, very privileged New York artist -- something I've always wanted to be, and yet, a class of person I find it difficult to sympathize with -- the actor/writer Paul Reiser, of TV's Mad About You, uses an old woman's suffering to tell a male-bonding story about her husband and her son.

 

Of course, I'm sure Reiser doesn't see his movie this way. But how else can we view The Thing About My Folks, which should really be called The Thing About My Father? When Sam Kleinman (Peter Falk) shows up at the Manhattan apartment of his son Ben (Reiser) with news that Muriel (Oympia Dukakis), his wife of 47 years, tacked a note to the refrigerator and just left, the two men set out to find her and, in the process, find themselves.

 

So what if Ben is conveniently in possession of a letter -- written by Muriel before Ben was born, but never given to Sam -- in which she pours out her unhappiness with marriage and life? So what if Sam acknowledges that Muriel was always an unhappy person? Why bother exploring Muriel's life when you can crash a perfectly good car into a tree and get a raffish septuagenarian into a bar fight over a pool game?

 

Given the contrived plot of this movie -- which, like the upcoming Everything Is Illuminated, arrives just in time for the High Holidays -- one hopes Ben isn't a novelist. For as honest as Reiser's script thinks it's being about love, marriage, the passage of time and the disappointments of life, he overlooks a crucial truth about Sam and Muriel: People like them came from a generation of unhappiness -- post-war, Cold War, culture wars (their parents were from the Old Country) and pre-1960s self-help, self-actualization and therapy. They all suffered in silence, but at least the men got out of the house now and then. So the more interesting story here is that of Muriel, whom we meet only at the end, and who, like a HUAC witness, essentially recants.

 

I might give Reiser's movie at least a disinterested yawn if it were even just a little bit funny or charming. But most of the time it's neither, and it's alternately an extended episode of Mad About You, a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, and a Neil Simon leftover (for better or worse, it's never much like Woody Allen). Reiser is a bad dramatic actor because he never stops hiding himself behind variations of his comic persona. Falk, on the other hand, sucks as much juice as he can from Reiser's arid invention. He's the sole reason to see The Thing About My Folks, just for old time's sake.

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