The Thing About My Folks

Ben Kleinman (Paul Reiser) lives in New York City with his wife Rachel (Elizabeth Perkins) and daughter. He has three married sisters who live with their families in the suburbs, but are all connected at the hip thanks to the telephonic genius of conference calling. Their father Sam Kleinman (Peter Falk) turns up at Ben’s door one evening without his wife Muriel (Olympia Dukakis). Something is wrong.

Muriel has left her husband of nearly fifty years. She left a written note on the refrigerator door, no phone number, no forwarding address. Everyone is surprised. No one is surprised. The Kleinman clan begins its investigations, analyzing their parents’ relationship, looking for clues by spinning out one scenario after another. Dad had this coming to him. Who could have seen this coming? Whaddaya gonna do, hmm?

Sam was on his way to look at buying a country farmhouse–his wife, he thinks, has her heart set on living in the country. So, what the hell, why not take Dad along? It’ll be good for him, distract him, take his mind off things, and give Sam and Ben the chance to go on a father-and-son buddies-bonding on-the-road trip. As father and son come to know each other better, they come to understand their own relationship with their absent wife and mother.

As the characters spar and joust and fight and love their way through the autumn foliage of upstate New York (much of the film is shot in the Catskills), they seem to see more clearly, and lovingly into each other’s hearts. Reiser seems to have intended this film as a Valentine’s Day card for his own parents, perhaps as he remembers them, or idealized in the ways people typically wish their parents had been.

Screenwriter Reiser pays close attention to details of personality quirks, regional dialects, domestic interiors, and rural countrysides, imbuing each environment with shades of sweet nostalgia. The film is strongest in its loving details of this New York Jewish family, this look back at the post-war generations. It works well as an affectionate leave-taking at the start of the twenty-first century. However, Reiser gets the rural dialect wrong and his sentimentalized vision of upstate rustics and their Saturday night baseball games and bar brawl culture may be offensive to some viewers.

As a film about family relations this one does not disappoint. As a slightly self-indulgent study of New Yorkers looking at themselves, it will charm. An analysis of the psycho-dynamics of divorce it isn’t. So, whaddaya gonna do? Maybe sit down and enjoy it like a warm bowl of matzo ball soup on a late November afternoon.

Les Wright

image