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Rocket Gibraltar

Rocket Gibraltar
Columbia TriStar
1988 / Color / 1:37 flat adapted scan? / 99 min. / Street Date September 16, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Burt Lancaster, Suzy Amis, Patricia Clarkson, Frances Conroy, Sinéad Cusack, John Glover, Bill Pullman, Kevin Spacey, Macaulay Culkin
Cinematography Jost Vacano
Production Designer Bill Groom
Film Editor Melody London
Original Music Andrew Powell
Written by Amos Poe
Produced by Jeff Weiss, Michael Ulick, Geoffrey Mayo, Robert Fisher
Directed by Daniel Petire

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Rocket Gibraltar seems to have been concocted as a sort of On Golden Pond for Burt Lancaster, a tribute to a beloved actor that acknowledges his great body of work while giving audiences some nostalgic parting time with him. An actor has to be emotionally open and giving to make a picture like this; most are so egotistic as to want to grab the wrong kind of attention, even as they fade away.

In this case, Lancaster was six years from the end and can't be accused of getting involved as a means of attracting sympathy. His Atlantic City several years before was already a 'Gee, Burt's getting up there' sort of show, and Field of Dreams the very next year gave him another opportunity for a classy cinematic exit. Perhaps the most showoff of this kind of picture was John Wayne's The Shootist, where the great star used a bloodbath as an on-screen 'exit' completely opposed to the mood of his 50-year body of work.

In Rocket Gibraltar the eulogy is not for Lancaster's action-man circus artist persona, but the liberal activist that peeked through his more mainstream work from the middle 50s on, when he was producing his own films. His character here is a blacklisted Hollywood writer named Levi Rockwell who turned to stand-up comedy when he couldn't support his family. Now he's the revered Paterfamilias of an extended clan. All but one of his several daughters have married and had bushels of kids. The whole group, including what one might think would be an incompatible selection of husbands, gets along famously. Levi's beloved wife, equally the soul of the family, has been dead for quite some time, and Levi spends his afternoon naps listening to Billie Holliday records and thinking about her.

The clan gathers at Levi's enviable beach house for his birthday, and the film is mainly a celebration of a family that works - all the siblings and in-laws respect one another, and their sheltered kids are a nice bunch.

Dramatists will chafe at the observation that there isn't much tension or conflict here. Levi exchanges some words with the local doctor, who once loved his wife. They're way beyond getting worked up over those things. Thanks to the restraint of the younger actors, the various daughters and sons-in-law are nicely sketched without building any of their problems to 'dramatic' climaxes. Daughter Aggie (Suzy Amis) is a free soul who sleeps around in full view of the family, but is accepted and embraced. Patricia Clarkson, Frances Conroy and Sinead Cusack are variously well-balanced and concerned for their father's health, which we all know has to be failing for there to be a story here. John Glover is a somewhat irksome but sincere movie producer type, and Bill Pullman a big-league ball player worried that he's lost his curve ball. That's as close as the movie comes to a crisis, and it's solved simply by having him go pitching at the barn door in the middle of the night (and oddly, not waking anybody up).

Rocket Gibraltar was one of Kevin Spacey's first bigscreen appearances in a character role, and he's already distinctive, even if his comedian-unsure-if-he's-still-funny act isn't particularly compelling. He fits nicely into the rest of the low-key performances; it's a good ensemble.

Beyond dramatics, others will think the film is still a rather sanitary affair. The entire cast is beautiful, talented and have interesting creative jobs. We can suppose this was inherited from their powerhouse dad Levi, but not one of his lively, spirited offspring seems to have been a resentful rebel, not even to the extent of marrying a plumber or a mortgage broker. It's all a bit pat.

Besides some expected dialogue that's a little too advanced, the kids are an interesting lot as well. Not written to have too much personality, they are expected to carry the spine of the movie's main theme, and here's where the show breaks down.


Grandpa Levi talks about Viking funerals, and Cy Blue, the youngest and most dewey-eyed of the ankle biters (cute Macaulay Culkin, in his first film) takes him at his word. The rest of the kids acknowledge Cy as a bona-fide prophet and psychic, and buy into his plan to salvage an abandoned skiff for a birthday present - it can be a Viking ship in which Levi can burn, rather than be buried in the ground with the worms.

It's not irresistably touching, but Culkin is adorable in his scenes with Burt, and the plot hook enables the film to make a nod toward the issues of little kids learning the meaning of death through their Grandfather. Unfortunately, it also seems a patently contrived ending to a movie that the rest of the time has strained to make sure nothing remotely symbolic occurs. Director Daniel Petrie does a fine job with the general genial atmosphere, but can't do much with the script's portentious conclusion. The flurry of unlikely events (the kids seem inspired by E.T. to go on a reckless mission) are so fuzzy that the movie has to come to a close before the parents can ask their children, "What the **** do you think you're doing?" (spoiler ) Would you take the word of some ten year-olds that your father was actually dead before they burned him up? There's a leap of tone and logic here that the movie can't reconcile.

This remains a film for Burt Lancaster lovers to simply admire the grace and dignity of the man.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Rocket Gibraltar looks all right but is one of their frustrating flat transfers of a film that would have been improved through 16:9 formatting. Jost Vacano's cinematography would probably have looked a lot better, and more accurate compositions might have focused the drama. Other aspects are fine.

This is probably considered a 'family' film, and Columbia's packaging text indicates that that's how the studio sees it, but I wouldn't consider it at all suitable for children.  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rocket Gibraltar rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 29, 2003


1. You see, I am conservative where it counts. I guess Savant is some kind of self-styled (pigheaded?) moralist.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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