Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Family Business is an enjoyable thriller and character study that remains amusing, even as
we try to sort out indigestibles such as Dustin Hoffman possibly being the son of Sean Connery. The
story explains this and other questions adequately enough, the criminal drama is
handled well (at least until near the end), and Hoffman and Connery mesh on screen a lot better
than we expect them to. It's a story about losers living a heritage of
being losers, with an upbeat tone that counters the movie's own messages.
Disillusioned biology major Adam McMullen (Matthew Broderick) has dropped out of
college just short of his master's degree, which causes his parents much concern. But Adam has
other ideas - he foots bail for his grandfather Jessie (Sean Connery), a career thief, and presents
the grizzled old troublemaker with an irresistable plan for a foolproof industrial crime that
should net them a million dollars. Adam's father Vito (Dustin Hoffman) went straight years ago,
but is still a crack lockpicker - and finds himself outvoted by his own father and son. Vito
agrees to join in on the heist, just to make sure Adam doesn't get into trouble.
Family Business has the form of a tragedy. It's bookended by funerals, and involves a caper
that we all know can't come to a good end, so the light-comedy tone is the most remarkable thing
going for it. More effective in deterring crime than 50 films about hardboiled criminals, writer
Vincent Patrick's ode to familiy ties among thieves is a mature look at why we really stay
away from lives of larceny - what would Mom and Dad think?
Long ago, the gangster's selfish ambition would be contrasted with another character representing
a civilized alternative - a priest, an elected official, or a policeman. By the
late 80s, the culture had stripped all of those professions of their presumed altruism. As early
as 1971's The Anderson Tapes (also directed by Lumet), Sean Connery played a likeable criminal
with a well-developed rationalization to justify his lifestyles. Here in Family Business,
Connery is a nervy old coot eager to argue his point - everyone's corrupt, but he's an honest
crook. This is pointed up in an interesting dinner party scene where Adam's date (Victoria
Jackson) explains how she uses insider information on terminally-ill patients to target scarce
Manhattan apartments soon to become vacant - a sleazy but logical business shortcut that outrages
Deep down, Jesse knows his protests are cheap evasions, but Adam idolizes his grandfather's hearty
philosophy. When he comes up with an insider scheme of his own, with a big payoff and no victims,
Adam puts too much temptation in front of his 'anything goes' granddad, and the caper is on. Caught
in the middle, Vito fights the idea, but soon talks himself into the job, too. The
excuse is that he's protecting the inexperienced Adam, but it's all too clear that the thrill of
crime is a bug that has bitten Vito too. Vito's frustration with his day job wholesaling meat shows
itself in a violent outburst. The physically slight Hoffman proves his acting mettle by convincingly
beating up a surly butcher played by Luis Guzmán.
Director Sidney Lumet is in his relaxed mode, and much of Family Business is engagingly
entertaining. The McMullens Three togetherness-bond on a shopping trip for the big heist,
telling old stories as if they were going fishing. We see just enough of the other relatives to
know how seriously the extended McMullen family will be hurt by their folly.
The crime is a deceptively simple piece of burglary, but the easy pickings only seem to exaggerate
the human error factor. Family ties don't always make for good professional performance, and the
job goes horribly wrong for entirely unnecessary reasons. The falling-out is inevitable, when father
and son start selling each other short, an unhappiness witnessed by Jesse's waitress girlfriend
Margie (Janet Carroll).
Family Business carries its emotional story to a fine conclusion, but drops the legal
thread about 4/5ths of the way through. Jesse unravels the caper behind the caper,
but we never get the full resolution of that end of things - why they don't turn in the crooks at
the company they robbed? For that matter, with handguns involved in the robbery, the relative
leniency at the end doesn't feel right. After we meet the ruthless defense attorney (Deborah Rush),
and get a hint of bigger schemes, we fully expect plot complications that don't surface.
The emotional finish is very satisfying, however. Connery remains adorable, Hoffman holds the center
while avoiding attempts to steal the picture, and Broderick shows a strong likeable streak. Lumet's
take on beer-soaked Irish wakes is amusing and sentimental. He even has time for a funny gag during
two different pans across dozens of faces singing Danny Boy: the camera dips, not once but
twice, to note a shriveled old lady sitting between the lines of singers. It's somehow
funny, and I haven't the slightest idea why.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Family Business is a very plain-wrap presentation with excellent
picture and sound. Savant never saw the show in a theater, and the DVD is so good I'd like to
know how audiences reacted to it. Perhaps everyone was around the corner at Batman.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Family Business rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson