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UNSTRUNG HEROES

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, April 12, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: An overlooked and forgotten film, this 24-year-old comedy-drama (Diane Keaton’s feature-directing debut) deserves a second look, so kudos to Kino Lorber for giving it a Blu-ray upgrade and making it available once again to general audiences. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Sept. 22, 1995.

The driving force, the center of strength that holds life together for the Lidz family, and particularly for 12-year-old Steven (Nathan Watt), is his mother, Selma (Andie MacDowell).

Steven's eccentric father, Sid (John Turturro), is emotionally distant, his extended family is too demanding and his crazy uncles Danny and Arthur (Michael Richards, Maury Chaykin) are, well, too crazy.

So, when Selma is diagnosed with cancer and Sid pulls even deeper into himself, young Steven looks for a way to escape.

The obvious choice is to move in with his uncles, who have managed to create their own magical, if bizarre, universe, shutting out the troubles of the world.

     

Lobby card: DIane Keaton gives direction to young Nathan Watt.

Uncle Danny is paranoid and ever on the lookout for conspiracies, while Arthur is childlike and innocent. They live together in an apartment filled with unopened newspapers ("We never get around to reading them," Arthur explains), bouncing rubber balls (retrieved from a drainage pipe that brings them downtown from the gutters of Los Angeles suburbs) and, most importantly, memories, which they cherish and attempt to preserve. They are also quite devout in the observance of their Jewish religion.

Set vaguely in the early ’60s, "Unstrung Heroes" focuses on Steven's attempts to cope with the difficulties of knowing his mother is dying and that his father is in deep denial.

As Sid comes up with all sorts of crackpot remedies he hopes will throw his wife's cancer into remission, Steven realizes he's got to find his own escape valve — and through Danny and Arthur, the boy eventually finds his way.

Emotionally moving and often hilarious, "Unstrung Heroes" is filled with wonderful touches, ranging from Sid's obsession with his black-and-white home-movie camera and a bevy of wacky inventions (the most charming is a portable star-scope that lights up the ceiling of their living room like the heavens) to Steven and Arthur fishing together for rubber balls.

     

The characters' relationships are all quite nicely developed and the performances are uniformly excellent, as young Watt manages to hold his own with the seasoned cast.

Chaykin should get more attention after his work here, Richards gets to be both as wacky as his Kramer character on "Seinfeld" and more serious, and it's good to see Turturro playing against type and pulling it off so well.

MacDowell, with the difficult role of a dying mother who feels she must make every effort to pull the family together before her departure, is first-rate.

Despite some obvious Woody Allen influences here and there, "Unstrung Heroes" is a marvelous feature-film debut for Diane Keaton as a director.

The actress (who will next be seen in "Father of the Bride 2" this Christmas) shows a sure hand as she successfully juggles heart-tugging drama and zany comedy in this adaptation of Franz Lidz's autobiographical book (adapted by Richard La Gravanese, who also scripted "A Little Princess" and "The Bridges of Madison County").

The film is rated PG for a few profanities, a couple of vulgar remarks and some violence.