"Unstrung Heroes" is a kind of message in a bottle from the pre-Prozac world. It shows a loving family unstrung by debilitating mental disease, which it chooses to interpret as mere eccentricity, and then undone by a severe health crises.
Derived from a memoir by former Baltimorean Franz Lidz, the story recalls the early '60s, when Franz's mother developed a terminal case of cancer and the family seemed to disintegrate under the strain.
Lidz, then called Steven, went to stay with his two strange uncles almost to escape the agony of his mother's death.
As director Diane Keaton has it, working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, the world in which Steven found himself was a wonderful if strange new universe.
His Uncle Arthur (Maury Chaykin) collects balls. He has closet after closet of balls; he roams the sewers in search of abandoned balls. He collects newspapers, and has roomful after roomful of them. "I haven't had time to read them yet," he cries. Meanwhile, Uncle Danny (Michael Richards) is a paranoid.
Keaton does a very clever thing here. She understands how wonderfully provocative such behavior might be to a bright boy's imagination, and for a time "Unstrung Heroes" reflects Steven's fascination with it.
It particularly becomes a port of refuge from the harshness of his increasingly stressed-out father Sid (John Turturro) and the increasing lethargy of his once vital mother (Andie MacDowell).
And the brothers seem so compelling in their whimsy, their gentleness, their high level of amusement, their unwillingness to judge or control him. He even allows them to "rename" him Franz, a pun on the name of pianist Franz Liszt, which symbolically removes him from the control of his poor father.
So for a bit the film seems like one of those sentimental glosses on mental illness in which the poor victim is seen as possessing some kind of higher form of knowledge, some sublime insight into the true mechanics of the world.
What I saw, however, was sheer wastage: intelligent lives given over to total, fruitless obsessive-compulsiveness. It reminded me somewhat of that most tragic (and best) of American films this year, Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," in which the gifted artist confronts the ruined lives of his wasted, dysfunctional brothers.
Here, instead of living rich lives and getting what they could out of their vast intellects, the two become mild jokes. A shame, when 20 cc's a day of Prozac could restore them to us and, more important, to themselves.
And the movie has the courage to face this, its most significant victory. Late in the going, Danny at least understands, and has himself committed. Meanwhile, Franz (played adorably by Nathan Watt), realizes that it is time to go home again and face his mother's fate.
Keaton has an exceedingly good feel of family dynamics, although I think she overplays the cuteness of the father's kooky inventions in the beginning, not getting the film off to a good start.
But gradually, "Unstrung Heroes" begins to grow on you, and eventually becomes a powerful document of a family struggling to stay together under the most harrowing of stresses and learning once again the most important of messages, about love.
Starring Nathan Watt, John Turturro and Andie McDowell
Directed by Diane Keaton
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Sun score: ***