I could probably come up with a better pan for Mr. Popper’s Penguins than “flightless and foul ” but that would entail expending more creative energy on the film than its makers did. Directed by Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past The Spiderwick Chronicles) and based on a 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater it is so empty and artificial and formulaic that if I didn’t know better I would have pegged it as a very cynical parody or perhaps a film within a film about some desperate mafioso’s questionable money-laundering scheme.
Jim Carrey looking tired and perhaps a little embarrassed plays the title role of an arrogant self-absorbed businessman who is taught a variety of valuable life lessons by a sextet of penguins. The penguins bequeathed to Mr. Popper in his neglectful father’s last will and testament each exhibit a single personality trait which immediately makes them more emotionally complex than the film in which they appear.
They’re assigned names accordingly: there’s Captain the leader Loudy the screamer Lovey the hugger Bitey the biter Stinkey the farter and Nimrod the stumbler. I only wish this functional naming scheme were extended to the rest of the characters in the film – i.e. Clark Gregg is Nemesis Carla Gugino is Motivation Angela Lansbury is Conscience and so on. If anything it would have allowed the filmmakers to excise a healthy chunk of dialogue which in the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins only exists to punish the brain.
The film boasts three credited screenwriters among its crew. Though I’m not privy to each writer’s specific contributions I imagine their duties were divided in roughly this fashion: 1) scrub the story of all imagination or wit; 2) remove any deviations from pat Hollywood formula; and 3) cram it with as much toilet humor as the MPAA will allow in a PG film. You’d think that a single writer could have mangled a beloved
children's book just as convincingly but you’d be wrong: This kind of
debacle requires a team effort.
Like most American families the Grombergs are a little dysfunctional despite their amazing loft apartment sensational Apple computers and successful family law firm. Middle-aged Alex (Michael Douglas) is what his son Asher (Cameron Douglas) calls a "soggy cracker": a corporate attorney who's always worried about something he works in a soup kitchen and takes pro bono work to assuage his middle-class guilt over his day job. He also struggles to understand his oldest son who's a failure in college but does well enough as a drug dealer and DJ. Alex's father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) meanwhile is your standard powerbroker-cum-bored-retiree; he founded the law firm where Alex now works and if Alex's whining is to be believed spent most of his time there while his son was growing up and definitely didn't do much understanding. These three main characters are so self-absorbed that it's not surprising the story of their lives comes off about as interesting as a soup-soaked Saltine; thank goodness for mom Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) who manages at least on occasion to be something other than tolerant and uptight second son Eli (Rory Culkin) a karate champion with a crush on the class runaway a sixth-grade goth girl.
Interestingly it's young Culkin of that other famous Hollywood clan who steals the show with a deadpan delivery that would make Jerry Seinfeld proud. His performance aside It Runs in the Family is notable for its four-for-the-price-of-one special on Douglases: There's grandpa Kirk his ex-wife Diana as the grandmother of the clan son Michael and grandson Cameron in his first role. If you thought it would be creepy watching a family of Douglases play a family on the big screen you were right. It's beyond creepy--it's uncanny in that is-this-real-or-is-this-a-movie kind of way and the acting style is eerily familiar too. Everybody wants to be the good guy everybody wants to say the punch line and nobody wants to take any chances. Still the Douglases seems to take great joy in their own movie and in working together and that brings a certain joy to the audience; despite its pervasive cherish-your-family theme there are moments when it doesn't go over the top and these are charming--if few and far between.
Director Fred Schepisi makes ubiquitous use of several generations of Douglas family photos to punctuate various scenes in the film--usually the ones where we're supposed to realize how much they love each other and learn what family really means. The audience is meant to come away with a nice smarmy sense of the quirky little realities of this "everyfamily " but just in case you didn't get it the characters--like the actors--don't take any chances that might make you question just how "nice" they really are; they resist any real rebellion or risk and there's always someone willing to try to understand if they do occasionally screw up. Aside from making for a pretty dull film it doesn't ring particularly true. For all the actors are really a family they don't seem very comfortable with one another on the screen so their characters' squabbles and heartfelt admissions come off stilted and forced their reactions seem too controlled and their relationships ironically don't give the audience a sense of any real bond between them.