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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Family Business': It's a Crime

December 15, 1989|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Family Business" (citywide) is a frail little caper movie that's overawed by its cast. With Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick playing three generations of a family, you've got a lot of talent at your disposal.

Forget for the moment the fact that, in this movie about the persistence of family genes, none of the actors remotely resembles each other. Forget, too, that Dustin Hoffman is seven years younger than Connery, who plays his father here. Years of agent-inspired casting have inured audiences to weirder confabs than this.

But there should be a pay-off to the oddness, some compelling dramatic reason for these three to get together. Like a good script, maybe.

Instead, the movie lays out a slew of half-baked ideas and never turns on the burner. The contrived plot is set in motion by Adam (Matthew Broderick), a science whiz who has recently dropped out of a master's program in molecular biology. What he wants to become is a thief like his grandfather, Jessie (Connery), whom he helps bail out of jail when the film opens.

It turns out that Adam's father, Vito (Hoffman), now the owner of a meat packing company, was also a thief. Both Jessie and Vito served time in jail. The difference between them is that Vito has renounced the life while Jessie isn't adverse to a stretch in the slammer. He thinks it builds character.

Sidney Lumet, who directed from a script by Vincent Patrick based on his own novel, is highly regarded as an "actor's director." That encomium only applies however, when he's dealing with material his actors can chew on. In "Family Business," watching these three extraordinarily talented performers try to breathe some life into the story is a bit like watching a magic show that never takes off.

The actors seem to know it, too, at least Hoffman and Broderick. They don't supply much relish. Connery has a better time of it, largely because he dispenses with the film's dour realism and tries for something folkloric, larger-than-life.

Connery's performance is immensely entertaining while not being believable for a moment. How can it be? The role is a screenwriter's conceit. Jessie's free spiritedness is supposed to link up with Adam's. Adam wants to be a thief because he rejects the middle-class safety of his father's life style. When he cooks up a robbery that could net $1 million, Jessie is delighted, Vito aghast. Still, is it any surprise that they end up pulling off the job as a family?

In his best work, Hoffman has generally sought an edge in the characters he plays, some streak of eccentricity. It may come as a relief to see Hoffman playing a normal, worn-down guy in "Family Business" after all his flibbertigibbet acting tricks in "Rain Man." But the role doesn't inspire him. Maybe he felt he had already covered this terrain in the 1978 "Straight Time," where he played an ex-con who falls back into crime. That is still probably his best performance, and it may have used him up for this kind of material.

Broderick conveys the vast intelligence we keep hearing Adam possesses, but he can't make sense of the role. No one could. Adam is supposed to covet a life of crime because he finds no excitement in the humdrum law-abiding world. But Broderick doesn't look famished for excitement; his alert features, his quickness, belie the character's needs. There is also the suggestion here that Adam is turning criminal as a way to spite his father and provoke some love, but the notion is never developed. Nothing in this film is.

This might be a good time to declare a moratorium on any further over-the-hill oldster roles for Sean Connery. It's not that Connery can't play them to the hilt. It's just that, at 59, he is such a hale and vigorous presence (hey, he's the Sexiest Man Alive cover boy for the current issue of People) that he always seems to leave younger actors winded. His dynamism throws "Family Business" completely and deservedly out of whack.

'FAMILY BUSINESS'

A Tri-Star Pictures release. Executive producers Jennifer Ogden and Burt Harris. Producer Lawrence Gordon. Director Sidney Lumet. Screenplay Vincent Patrick, based on his novel. Music Cy Coleman. Production design Philip Rosenberg. Costumes Ann Roth. Film editor Andrew Mondshein. With Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, Matthew Broderick, Rosana DeSoto.

Running time: 115 minutes

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian)

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