Despite containing one of Burt Reynolds’ best performances, Bill Forsyth’s Breaking In (1989) did no more for the Scottish filmmaker’s Hollywood career than Housekeeping (1987) had. Of course, it didn’t help that the film had about zero name value apart from Reynolds, was mis-marketed as a comedy/heist movie and came out through Sam Goldwyn. I suppose it was not exactly unreasonable to present the film as a caper comedy, since there is a caper and the film is amusing and doesn’t end with a tragedy. The problem is that the caper is neither particularly elaborate nor impressive, and the comedy is fairly tame. What you actually have here is a small-scale character comedy about the relationship between a seasoned thief, Ernie (Reynolds), and the young man, Mike (Casey Siemaszko), he takes under his wing as an apprentice. It’s a pleasant, shambling affair from the days before independent film became as formulaic as its mainstream counterpart.
One of the more interesting—and agreeable—aspects of the film is the way in which it accepts what happens without worrying too much about why. Mike breaks into people’s houses to steal food, look through their mail and watch TV. The film—and Ernie—recognize this as peculiar, but don’t expend a lot of time wondering about motivation. Similarly, the film takes its own sweet time getting around to the question of why Ernie would take this kid on, and when it does, it’s really not a persuasive explanation. The closest we get to anything of that sort lies in the golf-course scene where Ernie makes a hole in one as Mike is walking away—and you have to read between the lines to get it. It’s much the same with the relationship between the two in general, with the possible key to it being what each says about the other after their final meeting in the film.
Perhaps the main point of interest in this unassuming movie is just how very good Reynolds is in it. The film came at a time when Reynolds was known more as a personality than an actor. It was also a time when he was getting too old to be convincing as a traditional leading man. Breaking In marked a departure in that he not only played an older character—in fact, he plays one the script has as about 8 years older than he was—but one where his age is central to the story. Looked at from our current perspective, it’s easy to see that his Ernie is in much the same key as the performance he would win much praise for in 1997 for Boogie Nights. For that alone, Breaking In is worth catching.