Douglas' 'Take Me Home Again' tries, but is hollow holiday fare

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's the holiday season -- that time of year when families gather together in love and celebration.

Or, maybe not.

In NBC's "Take Me Home Again," it's mainly maybe not.

The film, which will air tomorrow night at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2), stars Kirk Douglas and Craig T. Nel son in the story of an estranged son and a dying father coming together after a 20-year silence between them. As one family member puts it, the son went AWOL not only from the Army during the Vietnam War years, but from his family, too.

The good news is that the film is written by Ernest Thompson, who wrote on "On Golden Pond." The bad news is that it's uneven.

"Take Me Home Again" has a brilliant opening and some wonderful dialogue, but it also has a sleigh-full of cliches and too many moments that don't quite make it.

Most of the film takes place on the road, in a used van that Ed Reece (Douglas) persuades his son, Larry (Nelson), to buy. Ed, who is terminally ill, wants to travel cross-country to California so he can die in the bed in which he was born.

On the road, the pair visits a woman (Eileen Brennan), with whom Ed had an affair with eons ago; plays golf at an exclusive country club that Ed always wanted to join, and visits Larry's ex-wife (Bess Armstrong) and their children.

Douglas is the big disappointment. His portrayal focuses almost exclusively on Ed's cantankerousness. You've seen dozens of similar performances -- lovable orneriness; Hume Cronyn at half speed. You never feel you've penetrated the surface with this guy, gotten past the clip-on bow tie and summer suit that he wears on the journey. The reunion with Brennan's character rings thunderously hollow.

Nelson's Larry is mainly Ed's straight man. He's the aging free-spirit/hippie who suddenly has to be the adult on the old man's last great ride. There seems to be room for a memorable role here, but it never happens.

The three fine supporting actress -- Brennan, Armstrong and Bonnie Bartlett as Ed's wife -- are wasted in paper-thin characterizations. They must have taken the roles solely for the chance to work with Douglas.

All that said, there are parts of "Take Me Home Again" that anyone familiar with lingering illness or terminal disease will recognize: boxes of prescription pills, the portable IV, the wheelchair and all the whispering in the house while family members wait for death to come. Thompson gets the details ever so right.

But, in the end, even such details are not enough to overcome the made-for-TV bromides in this film.

Estranged son does get closer to dad, and a phony sense of symmetry is sprinkled like pixie dust over the holes in the story. The final notes are falsely upbeat. Instead of resonating with the heart, they ring tinny to the ear.

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