Unstrung Heroes

on September 15, 1995 by Kim Williamson
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   There's a moment near the conclusion of this Hollywood Pictures production that finds a young mother, Selma Lidz (Andie MacDowell), sitting at her dining room table, alone with her thoughts. Apricot-hued daylight is dappling her, with one sunbeam accenting an outstretched leg. Secretly watching her, trying to find the courage to ask whether it's true she's dying, is her 12-year-old son, Steven (Nathan Watt). As caught by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the scene is almost fragrant with the maternal and mammalian. Directed by, say, "Red's" Krzysztof Kieslowski, it would also be frought with their contraries: pain and death.
   But "Unstrung Heroes" is directed by Diane Keaton, and in her hands the material -- adapted by "A Little Princess'" Richard LaGravenese from the memoirs of Jewish writer Franz Lidz -- remains at most sad, and often almost upbeat. That makes this story set in a quintessentially American time and place -- Kennedy-era Southern California -- a very American take on coming of age. (Which might explain the film's lukewarm reception at Cannes.) It opens boisterously, with home-movie footage of inventor father Sid (John Turturro) recording his efforts: a domedary noctural system enclosure (a tented bed), a pediatric perpetual motion baby jumper (a bungee-like swing). "There's nothing broken that science cannot fix" is his technotopian motto -- one that is challenged when, a dozen years into his charmed marriage, Selma is stricken with little hope for a cure.
   As his beautiful mother begins sinking away, Steven is so distressed he spends part of a summer with his two paternal uncles, who like Sid are a little "off": Danny (Michael Richards from TV's "Seinfeld") sees anti-Semitic conspiracies everywhere, and Arthur ("Whale Music's" Maury Chaykin) collects discarded tchotchkes. From them, the formerly quiet boy acquires not only a certain free-spiritedness but also the Jewish religious traditions that his scientific-minded father, who sees belief in God to be only a crutch, has withheld from him. As the days pass, the good-hearted Sid turns bitter; Danny commits himself to a sanatorium; Selma becomes more gaunt and sunken-eyed. Yet the film retains a peculiar sweetness, appreciating the human quirks of its eccentrics even as the normal one among them approaches her grave.
   Once again, LaGravenese has fashioned a script that's not only affecting but cohesive, right down to its black-and-white bookends. The film also profits from Keaton's fine work with her actors, a perfectly capricious score by two-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman ("Little Women," "The Shawshank Redemption") and excellent period design by Garreth Stover. Although circumscribed in reach, on its own terms "Unstrung Heroes" is a splendid success.    Starring Andie MacDowell, John Tur-turro and Nathan Watt. Directed by Diane Keaton. Written by Richard LaGravenese. Produced by Susan Arnold, Donna Roth and Bill Badalato. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG for emotional subject matter. Running time: 92 min.
Tags: Andie MacDowell, John Turturro, Nathan Watt, good-hearted, bookends, pain, death, marraige, technotopian, Diane Keaton, Richard LaGravenese
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