It Runs in the Family

Whoever thought up the idea of It Runs in the Family, in which three generations of the Douglas family — Kirk and his ex-wife Diana, their son Michael and his son Cameron — appear together as the fictional Gromberg family of New York, made at least one bad mistake. This was to suppose that the Grombergs were likeable people whose half-fictional, half-real family relations would charm us and move us and send us home smiling and wiping the odd tear from our eyes. In fact, they are not charming at all but both boring and boorish: nasty, smug, self-righteous, spoiled rich people and therefore, surely, completely unlike the real-life Douglases. Fred Schepisi, the director, and Jesse Wigutow, the screenwriter, have let the family down badly by presenting them as such unpleasant characters.

Nor do they have much of a story to tell us. Old Mitchell and Evelyn Gromberg (Kirk and Diana Douglas), who in real life were divorced half a century ago, strive with small success to convey the tender pathos of a long and obviously less than completely happy marriage coming to an end . Middle aged Alex (Michael Douglas) and Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) are going through a small marital crisis — don’t worry, in spite of those panties in Alex’s coat pocket nothing happened, or almost nothing — while Alex is torn between the big bucks he makes at the law firm his father founded and the political and pro bono work he really loves. Finally he is faced with a choice when one of the slum-lords he has described, in Spanish, to a cheering throng of rent-strikers as “corrupt bastards” turns out to be a client of the firm. Guess what he does. Guess what party he belongs to.

Meanwhile, Young Asher (Cameron Douglas), an obnoxious and insolent youth whom for reasons unfathomable to me we are obviously expected to find attractive, is flunking out of college because he spends all his time partying when he is not running his thriving business growing and selling marijuana to his classmates. He is also a thoughtful and informative mentor to his 11-year old brother Eli (Rory Culkin), whose sexual experience is thus going through a bit of growth spurt. With his help, Eli learns how to put the moves on 12-year-old Abigail Staley (Irene Gorovaia), his painted lady-love who has just returned to the sixth grade after having eloped to Cape Cod with an older boy.

That’s life in the fast lane, I guess. Asher himself is learning some of the finer points of seduction from Gramps: “When you’re ready to close the deal, put on your shoes and leave,” he says. It is a stratagem that works splendidly on the charming Peg (Sarita Choudhury), a classmate who makes a brief and unpersuasive show of disapproving of the fact that Asher is a thick-witted slacker and pot-head before falling for him heavily. In fact, so quick is she to offer him her body that there can hardly be said to be any “deal” to close, at least on her side, before Asher tries out the shoes trick on her with such noticeable success. The scary thing is that the film-makers obviously expect us to find this moment of bonding between grandfather and grandson heart-warming.

You may, of course, find it easier than I did to care about such people. You may even, if you have been living in a cave for the last 30 years, take an interest in the various therapeutic nostrums that have obviously been the common currency among the family counseling services of Southern California for some little time. It seems that Mitchell, for instance, finds it hard to talk about his feelings and that Alex resents his father’s hypercritical attitude. But when Alex goes to the opposite extreme by reassuring the loutish Asher that he is not a “screw-up” even after he gets busted for drug dealing, you may nevertheless find yourself thinking that the young man is less in need of the good lawyer his father promises him than a good kick in the pants.

“We have all been in our own little worlds,” says Alex in response to Asher’s arrest; “it’s going to stop right now.” Ah, if only it were true! But whether it is or not, the smug little self-congratulatory world of the Douglas family appears to go on and on.

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