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Family Business

Family Business
Columbia TriStar
1989 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Rosanna DeSoto, Janet Carroll, Victoria Jackson, Bill McCutcheon, Deborah Rush
Cinematography Andrzej Bartkowiak
Production Designer Philip Rosenberg
Art Direction Robert Guerra
Film Editor Andrew Mondshein
Original Music Cy Coleman
Written by Vincent Patrick from his novel
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Burtt Harris, Jennifer Ogden
Directed by Sidney Lumet

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 Connery's Jesse.

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).

(no spoiler)

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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