Unstrung Heroes
directed by Diane Keaton
(Buena Vista, 1995)

Steven Lidz lives with his squeaky clean family in a squeaky clean house in a squeaky clean suburb -- until something comes into their house that all the squeaky clean in the world can't sweep away.

Steven's mother (Andie MacDowell) is dying, and her illness escalates a crisis in a house already divided.

On one side is Steven's father Sid (John Turturro), an inventor who believes that "Science is the only heroic path." On the other side are Steven's uncles, Arthur and Danny (Maury Chaykin and Michael Richards), the original conspiracy theorists.

Left to find his way between them is Steven, armed only with 12-year-old naivete and the words of his mother: "A hero is anybody who finds his own way through this life." How he finds that way, how he joins the Unstrung Heroes, is the rarest of tales: A story of intelligent and caring people caught in a crisis not of their own making, a problem that can't be solved, only resolved.

For Hollywood, that usually means it's time to get out the pattern book, recycle a few cliches, flush the tear ducts and prepare for action. In Unstrung Heroes, however, there's no such thing as business as usual.

That's partly because Heroes has one of the most unusual casts of characters ever to populate the screen, starting with Sid, the scientific rationalist who's abandoned the faith of his fathers for the space race. (Case in point: His birthday present to his son is a motorized tent which descends over his bed and contains a complete planetarium.

But Sid is completely outdone by Danny, who believes that there are only eight trustworthy people on the planet (There were 12, but four got assassinated.) and that "I like Ike" is gentile code for "I hate Kikes."

Danny's accomplice, Arthur, is no saner, but no less fetching. He spends his days in the park, gathering leaves he puts on sticks, or at the sewer plant rescuing the balls that fall into the city's storm drains, because he believes they "hold the sounds of the children who bounced them."

Playing this odd cast of characters is as talented a cast as was ever assembled on the screen. Turturro is perfect as the loving father who can't see past his own faith in science, in the need to document "the details and progress of our lives."

And Richards is energizing, if sometimes cartoonish, as Danny, who lives among 8-foot piles of newspapers and spends most of his day avoiding eviction by the hotel super, a quiz-show addict named Lindquist (Jack McGee).

And forging a fragile link between their two worlds is Nathan Wall as Steven, a.k.a. Franz. Whether he's using his dad's camera to catch the housekeeper stealing quarters or recreating his mother's routine for making pancakes, Wall captures all the uncertainty of an adolescent who knows so much more about the world than a grownup ever could, but won't mention it for fear his voice may crack. He's everything Macaulay Culkin never was, which is reason alone to watch the film.

Finally, there's Andie MacDowell as the mom, capturing on film the elegant sad grace of a loved one dying one cell at a time. She may not have won an Oscar, but my guess is she'll be swamped with adoption requests for the rest of her life.

Unstrung Heroes has moments that don't work. The final scene, as recorded on Sid's camera, for example, contains one of Hollywood's favorite visual cliches: the clutching hand. But if there were Oscars for Best Dialogue and Best Balancing Act, Heroes would have been my hands-down winner.

Oh, yes, and Best Way to Spend 93 Minutes in the Dark.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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