Crusty curmudgeon Sam Keinman (Peter Falk) sheepishly ends up on the doorstep of his son Ben (Paul Reiser) one night with the news that his wife of nearly half a century Muriel (Olympia Dukakis) has left him. She leaves a note on the fridge saying she has to go off and be alone and after a few minutes with Sam it’s easy to see why. A bombastic bully who’s never wrong Sam can’t imagine what has led to his failed marriage but his son is taking him in until they figure it all out. Ben has a successful marriage to Rachel (Elizabeth Perkins) and the two of them are considering moving out of the city. So Sam accompanies his son to look at a house in the peaceful countryside of New York state. The ride no doubt gives them a lots of time to talk–as well as avoid talking. But along the way they get into a minor accident and end up buying a 1940 Ford Deluxe coupe convertible that looks just like Sam’s first car. That leads to some unscheduled father-son bonding. They take the fishing trip they never took together – although neither of them are much good at baiting a hook. They head off to a pool hall where Sam shows his pool-shark abilities. They get ice cream pick apples and do lots of bickering. In a scene reminiscent of Sideways they even find themselves with two women they invite for dinner and are so self-absorbed they don’t realize for a while that they’ve been dumped. The conversation not the action is the journey and it culminates in a mysterious letter that Muriel wrote to Sam two weeks before Ben was born. It has been sealed ever since but now is finally going to be opened.
How can any director go wrong with a cast like this? You can’t especially if they’re channeling past characters that the audience are very familiar with. Reiser wrote the story and plays it very much like his Paul Buchman character from Mad About You–the thoughtful and philosophical straight man who surrounds himself with funny people. Falk can’t quite seem to shake his Emmy-winning Columbo persona always doing a little needling and always straying from the topic at hand. For example when the owner of the house they’re looking at talks about how it was in the family since the Civil War Sam changes the subject and is more interested in the septic tank. Still the veteran actor does a nice job conveying the initial bewilderment at why his wife would leave but inevitably forced into a little soul searching. Moonstruck‘s Dukakis once again plays the trodden-upon loyal housewife but her brief moments are memorable funny and poignant–you yearn for more screen time. Perkins also revives her role of the smart loyal and supportive housewife who doesn’t really do very much. But what it boils down to is a story between the two men and if you like both of the actors then you’ll love their ad-libbed interplay. It’s easy to see how Reiser and Falk make a good father-and-son team.
It seems over the past few years lots of guys are writing about their fathers in movies–Tim Burton‘s Big Fish and the painful Douglas family fiasco It Runs in the Family to name a few. For Reiser this is a love letter to his own parent and director Raymond DeFelitta best known for his underrated Two Family House doesn’t try to rein in the performances. Instead he keeps the pace steady and languid letting the dialogue between the men create the tension and the action. A lot of the story is told in the actors’ faces as they talk about the early days of Sam’s marriage the meaning of life the pain of growing old and the idea of dying. It’s Falk‘s character lines in his face and Reiser‘s twinkle in his eyes that keep the deep moments light and likewise bring some depth to the comedic levity. Thankfully it’s not a string of one-liners that come from a sitcom mentality. Although a lot of issues are brought up it’s the unspoken moments of painful silence that are just as telling. Ultimately it’s a film about self-discovery and Sam says it best while he’s driving in his new car: “You’ll be here when your old man finds himself. While we’re at it we can find you too. We can find the whole god damned family. We got a car!”