Anyone who has ever been involved with a film festival knows full well that movies that pick up “audience awards” are rarely the most adventurous of entries and often have a very high sentimentality quotient. So upon seeing that The Thing About My Folks had snagged such awards and garnered almost endless Internet Movie Database praise from casual film-festival attendees around the country — combined with a good deal of negativity from critics in cities where the movie has played — I approached it with some trepidation.
Now, before anyone jumps on the “Ken Hanke is an elitist snob” bandwagon, since those remarks could be taken to mean that professional critics obviously know more than audiences, let me explain. The problem with “audience awards” is that there’s a heavy skewing factor at work — the filmmakers’ friends (sometimes family members) are often among the voters, the audience has probably gotten to meet the filmmakers and found them to be very nice people, etc. And to a lesser extent, the same factors come into play on message boards.
The truth about this sweet, rather shambling little movie is somewhere between the gush and the criticism. No, the film is not great. But, yes, it does have a good heart, and it does provide Peter Falk with a nice showcase performance.
In many ways writer-co-star Paul Reiser accomplished just what he set out to in coming up with a solid vehicle for Falk (and he didn’t do too badly for himself, either). The problem is that it’s a vehicle a lot like the 1940 Ford Deluxe that Falk’s character buys part way through the film (at the most peculiar backwoods garage/junkyard ever to grace a movie): It looks great, it’s got a lot of power, but it’s ultimately just a big, clunky old car. Folks is nothing if not clunky. It less moves along than it lurches.
The setup itself is awkward. Sam Kleinman (Falk) — with a letter in hand from his wife, Rachel (Olympia Dukakis) — just appears on his son Ben’s (Reiser) doorstep one night, announcing that his wife is gone. After much mildly amusing nonsense, the film finally gets down to the father-son road trip that is its entire raison d’etre. Parts of the trip work (notably the more serious parts); parts simply don’t (an extended scene in a pool hall and an absurd night on the town with a couple of local women feel forced and phony).
What always does work is Falk, not to mention his chemistry with Reiser (something a lot of the film’s detractors seem to have overlooked). The admiration and love for Falk that prompted Reiser to make the movie shows through in his playing, and the two really do seem like father and son. Even when Reiser resorts to not one, not two, but three utterly pointless flatulence gags for Falk, there’s a sense of respect at work.
And despite some badly matched exposures, Folks is an uncommonly handsome film that’s solidly, if unspectacularly, made. But it is one of those movies that would be unthinkably bad without its star. Of course, in this case, it wouldn’t exist without that star, so the point is moot.
This movie may not be worthy of an award — it’s never been deemed worthy of a wide release so far. Yet it is sincere, and a film in which the sentimentality is real — and that always counts for something. But is it realistic? No. The storyline is too contrived for that. Still, its characters are realistic and genuinely touching. It would take someone more jaded than I to not be moved by the moment where Sam realizes that his son is “a nice guy.” It’s a small thing, but it’s the kind of small thing that makes The Thing About My Folks appealing, even when the film sputters and stalls. Rated PG-13 for language, including some suggestive references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke