"Jack the Bear" isn't a movie so much as a study, an evocation, an impression of life in a grimly dysfunctional family, circa 1972, in Oakland, Calif. It's got tears, hugs, laughs, thrills, chills. It's got everything except . . . a story.
Story? These guys are too sensitive for such a trashy concern as a story. Are you kidding? Feelings are so much more important! Feelings, they've got such feeeeeeee-lings. And people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.
As for me, I need story and I sure didn't get it here. The movie meanders aimlessly for nearly an hour and a half through the doings in the pitiful Leary household, headed up by tiny John (Danny DeVito), who makes a dismal living as the host of a late night horror show on local TV. The gag here is that he's far more childish than his eldest son Jack (Robert Steinmiller Jr.), one of those supersensitive proto-adults who views the world through grave eyes and is always uttering pearls of wisdom like, "What I learned was that the monster was inside."
The Learys have a "secret." You can tell it's a secret because whenever they lapse into flashback, the cinematography gets really pretentious, amber-hued like Amaretto or Penzoil 10W-40. It seems that . . . mommy died under grotesque circumstances, and both Daddy and Jack have sequential flashbacks re-creating the episode, tantalizing us a bit at a time. This is absurd: You don't "remember" in little narrative pieces, but in whole gaudy horrifying chunks. Unless, of course, it's only a movie.
The sad-sack Learys have managed to move to Oakland's zaniest neighborhood. Everyone's a jerk. Norman, across the street, is a closet Nazi with a T-Bird up on cinder blocks. He carries a sword cane, laboriously identified and then, at climax, utterly forgotten about. Then there's the blowhard Mr. Festinger, who's always threatening to beat people up and who secretly poisons dogs. Another neighbor woman gurgles pills until her lumpy little kid says, "Mommy won't wake up any more." Mommy has gone bye-bye.
Down at the station, Daddy's always in trouble because he goes too far and nobody trusts him with his horror shtick. Does the movie want us to admire this? Why can't the guy simply be a professional? Instead, he's a wreck, slurping vodka, trying for satire that falls flat, producing gory special effects to no purpose save his own self-aggrandizement.
At about the 90-minute mark, the movie lurches desperately into the most wrenching of melodramas when, for reasons that remain unfathomable, Norman the Nazi (Gary Sinise, who deserves so much better) turns into a homicidal maniac and kidnaps Jack's younger brother, the sole point of which is to set up a tearful reconciliation scene in which everyone can squeeze and hug each other and look heroically to the horizon.
The movie gets one thing right: the father's sloppy, extravagant and boundless love for his children, which he has no idea how to show and whose inability to do so seems the only authentic tragedy in a movie jampacked with penny dreadfuls. DeVito, as always, is a feisty little rooster of a performer, shrewd and energetic, but his boy-man thing grows as tiresome as his son's man-boy deal. This one is strictly, you should pardon the pun, un-bear-able.
"Jack the Bear"
Starring Danny DeVito and Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.
Directed by Marshall Herskovitz.
Released by 20th Century Fox.