REVIEW: Family Business (1989)

Adam McMullen (Matthew Broderick) is a 23 year-old New Yorker living with an estranged relationship with his father Vito (Dustin Hoffman). He feels much closer to his grandfather Jesse (Sean Connery), a career criminal whose antics have led Vito to all but abandon him. When Adam stumbles upon what seems to be a low-risk high-reward burglary job, he persuades his both grandfather and his reluctant father along for the ride.

When you watch Family Business, be aware you will be watching it for the excellent cast and not for the film itself. It is a weirdly awful movie in many respects, with a climax that peaks much too early and a series of sudden and unexpected changes in tone. The film sits awkwardly between two stools: is it a light-hearted crime caper, or a heartfelt drama about three generations of men unable to properly communicate with one another. There is no need for the viewer to decide, as director Sidney Lumet apparently did not feel the need either. It lurches from one kind of movie to the other like a drunken pendulum, ultimately failing to work in either genre. It has glimmers of a solid and entertaining mainstream comedy-drama, but despite the actors’ collective best efforts they are never anything more than glimmers.

Dustin Hoffman is particularly good as Vito. He seems to live an uncomfortable life: raised by his father to be a criminal, then after a short stint in prison dedicated to providing a straight-and-narrow upbringing for his son. His father with Scottish (or Irish, the film makes it more difficult to tell than Connery’s accent does). His mother was Italian. He married a Jew and sits awkwardly at her family’s Passover dinner. He does not connect with his father, and he has failed to connect with his son. There is a furious pent-up violence to him that he keeps under control as much as he can. Hoffman plays all of this discomfort marvellously, in small gestures and pauses. He gives a much better performance than the screenplay deserved.

Matthew Broderick gives a solid performance, but he already feels a little too old to be playing the character that he is. There is a naive quality to Adam that he never quite sells to the audience. For his own part Sean Connery essentially plays Sean Connery, although it is a role that allows him to indulge in a hilarious quantity of foul language and casual racism, creating a character that is simultaneously endearing and maddening. It is a personality type that is immediately recognisable, and to a large extent he makes it work through sheer force of personality.

The three leads play off one another incredibly well, and ultimately drag the film out of being something relatively awful into something that is intermittently and broadly watchable. For some stretches it is even reasonably enjoyable. It is a shame, given the huge quality of director Sidney Lumet’s work, that they were not given something more consistent and effective to which they could apply their talents. Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and many others – what on Earth happened for him to direct this?

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