Sweet but dramatically inert, "The Thing About My Folks" is writer-star Paul Reiser's seriocomic valentine to his parents. While stocked with simple, earnest observations on love, relationships and family, the film's haphazard plotting and often discordant tone keep it from being anything more than an episodic collection of sentimental aphorisms.
In a lot of ways, the movie feels like an underdeveloped, overly long episode of Reiser's TV series "Mad About You," with Elizabeth Perkins stepping in for Helen Hunt and Peter Falk replacing Louis Zorich as Reiser's father. The writing here is not as sharp as it was in the show. In the movie, Reiser plays Ben Kleinman, a New York magazine writer with a wife and two kids, who plans to buy a farmhouse upstate. One evening, his father, Sam, nonchalantly shows up with shocking news: Ben's mother has unexpectedly taken off. At the suggestion of his wife, Rachel (Perkins), Ben takes the old man on a day trip to look at real estate. It quickly becomes an extended road trip.
Ever since his character expressed a lack of comfort with the word "nuance" in the 1982 film "Diner," Reiser has presented a particular brand of comic apprehension. In films such as "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Aliens" he always played the guy with an imminent anxiety attack following him like a black cloud. With "Mad About You," which he co-created, the unease continued but was usurped by a desire to comment on the modern urbanist condition. His humorous books, "Couplehood" and "Babyhood," were bestsellers, but here he reins in the comedy, leaving the film's emotions to carry a weight they cannot bear.
Reiser and Falk have good chemistry and are believable as father and son, but there's a grating quality to their arguments. At times there's so much yelling the film might have been called "Mad at You." Their scenes together become far more effective as Ben starts to see Sam as a man who did the best he could rather than as a father who was rarely home.
As they share experiences they missed -- attending a ballgame, going fishing -- the men gradually find some peace with each other. Falk is initially a little broad but settles down to deliver some wonderfully sly moments, as when he hustles a game of pool in a bar or laments the emptiness of dancing with a woman other than his wife for the first time in 40 years. Those moments, however, are tarnished by the decision to include a running gag about Sam's flatulence. Did the MPAA recently mandate that all PG-13 comedies must contain fart jokes?
The movie's female characters -- Rachel, Ben's sisters (Ann Dowd, Claire Beckman and Mimi Lieber) and Muriel, the runaway mom (an eleventh-hour appearance by Olympia Dukakis) -- are on the sidelines for most of the film, linked primarily by awkwardly staged phone calls that primarily serve to provide exposition. Given that one of the film's main themes is how little Sam and Ben understand women, there's something tautological about the ladies being given such short shrift.
Some nice images the region's plentiful leaves changing colors -- are mainly wasted. Director Raymond De Felitta ("Two Family House") seems less assured here than when working with his own material, and the film clearly speaks in Reiser's voice.
'The Thing About My Folks'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, including some suggestive references
Times guidelines: Surprisingly juvenile at times
A Picturehouse release. Director Raymond De Felitta. Producers Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer, Paul Reiser. Screenplay by Paul Reiser. Director of photography Dan Gillham. Editors David Leonard, Sheila Amos. Costume designer Kathryn Nixon. Music Steven Argila. Production designer Timothy Whidbee. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.