It Runs In The Family
Film Length: 109 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, and French
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish & French 2.0 Surround
DVD is truly a wonderful medium! Not only does the format offer consumers the chance to enjoy and archive their favorite movies, it gives smaller films that did not fare well at the box-office an opportunity to be seen and appreciated. Such is the case with It Runs in the Family, a film about individuals attempting to overcome both family dysfunctions and the personal problems in their lives. With this project, the stars finally aligned for Michael Douglas, in that he was able to realize his dream of working alongside his father, screen legend Kirk Douglas. Though it took many years for them to find the right script, I am happy to report that the chemistry between the Kirk and Michael is every bit as great as you would expect, and that the end result is a film that is more than just a novelty act.
To be brutally honest though, this movie probably would never have seen a theatrical release if not for the personal involvement of Michael Douglas, and many of his family members. One reason for this is the limited mass appeal of films with such a somber tone, and the lack of room in the marketplace for films if this nature now that “event” movies are rolling out almost every week. Another reason is that we have seen this type of fare before, most often in the form of a made-for-TV movie, although this one boasts higher production values and is much more enjoyable. That being said, It Runs in the Family is certainly not a film for everyone, and I also expect that it is not a film people will be on the fence about. I believe it is more likely that you will either enjoy getting to know these characters or you will not. For me personally, Michael Douglas’ labor of love was worth seeing, in particular because the story is so well executed (for the most part).
In It Runs in the Family, Kirk Douglas plays Mitchell Gromberg, the patriarch of a rather well-off family whose members have become disassociated from each other by getting bogged down in individual problems. Mitchell, one year removed from a stroke, has come to terms with his worsening physical condition, but is greatly concerned about both his son Alex (Michael Douglas), who he feels is not living a fulfilling life, and the failing health of his wife (Kirk’s ex-wife, Diana Douglas). No doubt leaning on his own personal trials and experience, Kirk Douglas is every bit the engaging presence a movie icon should be, and he brings a real sense of honesty, warmth, and good humor to his role of an octogenarian recovering from a massive stroke.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s son Alex Gromberg is battling demons in both the personal and professional aspects of his life. Alex is a successful corporate attorney, but his heart and soul have never been in corporate law. What he really yearns for is the personal fulfillment of urban politics and community service. In terms of his personal life, he struggles to overcome the damage he has done to his marriage via a “perceived” extra-marital relationship, and to maintain his relationships with two very different sons, the dimwitted Asher (Michael’s son, Cameron Douglas) and gifted, reclusive Eli (Rory Culkin).
So how does this almost exclusively Douglas family affair stand up? While the story is not quite Oscar-caliber, I think the film succeeds in painting a fairly realistic portrait of the everyday struggles of a dysfunctional family. Screenwriter Jesse Wigutow doesn’t seem willing to climb out onto a limb, so some of this material seems a bit germane, but for the most part, It Runs in the Family treads the thin ice between comedic farce and bitter real-life frustration successfully, and strikes the right emotional chords when it needs to. Director Fred Schepisi also handles the script delicately, and avoids forcing conclusions on the viewer, which I appreciated. I like to use my imagination a little bit, so I find it to be refreshing and welcome when filmmakers avoid crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ for me. Better yet, not having everything neatly resolved lends more credence to a film like this, a realistic family drama about life’s struggles.
In my opinion, this film rises above the typical family drama, due in large part to the charisma and acting ability of its stars, but I still have a few quibbles with it. My main issue with the film was Cameron Douglas’ ragged, one-dimensional portrayal of Asher Gromberg. For a moment, I almost thought Sean Penn’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High was placed into the film via CGI. I don’t think the blame for this should rest on Cameron’s shoulders alone though, because the character seems clumsily written in comparison to the other members of the family. In my opinion, the sub-plot involving Asher simply does not mesh with the rest of the story too well, and his oafish nature makes the steamy relationship he develops with an intelligent, sexy young woman (Michelle Monaghan) almost totally implausible, which detracts from the film as a whole.
With the exception of Cameron Douglas’ turn as Asher, the other characters are played with wit, charm, and passion. Not surprisingly, I grew to care about them over the course of the film, and became sympathetic of their troubles. The one performance among the supporting cast that really stood out for me was that of Kirk Douglas’ ex-wife, Diana. Interestingly, despite being divorced for Kirk for almost a half-century, Diana Douglas makes a perfect on-screen wife for him. The two have a delightful chemistry, and it is easy to believe that their characters have been married for five decades. Rory Culkin is also excellent, tenderly portraying a young boy on the verge on manhood, and as I expected, Michael Douglas delivers another of the many solid performances that have made him a major star in his own right. Further, the special bond that Kirk and Michael Douglas share translates well onto the screen, making me sorry they were not able to find more films to pair up on.
So, How Does It Look?
It Runs In The Family is presented on DVD in a very nice anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer by the folks at MGM. Colors rendering, with the exception of very slight occasional bleeding, is superb. Flesh tones and shadow delineation are wonderful as well, the latter being aided by deep, dark blacks. Fine detail is also well above average (for the most part – see below), giving the image a warm, rich texture.
For a good example of how detailed the image is, check out Kirk Douglas’ facial features. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but you can see every wrinkle and age spot. That is what I call detailed! Lastly, the print is extremely clean, and I was only able to observe a couple of specks during the film. This last comment should probably be no surprise though, as the film was released earlier this year (2003).
Sounds good, right? Well, overall, it really is, but I also noticed a fair amount of edge enhancement, although the resulting halos were never bad enough to be a major distraction. In addition, the image appears a bit soft on occasion, which knocks fine detail down a notch, but only in certain scenes. Fortunately, neither of these problems persists, so they do not detract too much from the overall viewing experience. Although I despise the term, this is a very “film-like” transfer, and will definitely not disappoint fans of this film.
What Is That Noise?
While the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track for It Runs In The Family won’t push your speakers anywhere near their limits, I have to say that it sounds pretty darn good. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is one of the better audio tracks (with one exception) I have heard on a film from this genre.
To begin with, the soundstage is incredibly wide, and although I really did not care for some of the “sourced” music used in the film, the score and sourced music all sounds fantastic! Frequency response is outstanding, and the separation between instruments is particularly wonderful. The surround channels, while not used in an overly aggressive manner, are still much more active than usual in a dialogue driven drama, and frequently add ambience to the outdoor scenes or embellish the score. Low frequency response was also pretty good, with the sub adding some nice “oomph” to the house beats Asher mixes during several scenes.
The only issue I had with this audio track was that during the Grombergs’ Seder dinner, dialogue sounded a little thin, and over-compressed to me. If memory serves, this sequence is during Chapter 7, although the audio quality both before and after this particular scene was certainly more than serviceable. As I already mentioned, the music used in the film is reproduced beautifully. With the exception of the Seder dinner sequence, I also thought dialogue rang through clearly and naturally as well. A very nice job by MGM!!!
For non-English speakers (or if you just want to see what this film’s dialogue sounds like in another language), there are French and Spanish stereo surround tracks included as well!
Family Makes You Nuts: The Making Of It Runs In The Family
This featurette, which runs for about 28-minutes, begins with a montage of scenes from the film, and then dives right in to interviews with Kirk, Michael, Cameron, and Diana Douglas, as well as Bernadette Peters, writer Jesse Wigutow, and Director Fred Schepisi. Michael Douglas (who also produced) is the featured participant, and provides some interesting insight into how long he and his legendary father have been trying to work together for, what it was like to work with his family, and the effort everyone made to make sure this did not devolve into a vanity project.
Some fairly germane topics are also covered, including a treatment of each actor’s contribution to the film (by their colleagues), and a discussion of how easy Fred Schepisi is to work for, but everyone is enthusiastic and easy to listen to, so I never found myself bored. On the other hand, there are also some interesting tidbits of information offered, like the working title of the film, and the revelation that Kirk Douglas had been trying to make a film version of the Broadway show One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for several years before his son picked up the project and turned it into an Oscar© -winning masterpiece.
Towards the very end of this documentary, it picks up some more steam, with Michael Douglas briefly discussing his philosophy for serving as Producer on a project, and Kirk Douglas making some amusing remarks about what it was like working for his son (apparently he doesn’t pay very well). To be sure, this is not among the very best featurettes I have ever seen, and there is a bit of “fluff” in it, but I enjoyed it all the same, and recommend that anyone who likes the film check it out. At the very least, you have to admire the pride that everyone in the Douglas family seemed to take in this picture.
Feature Length Commentary
Note: If you select this feature, subtitles also seem to be automatically enabled.
This commentary track, which features the musings of Director Fred Schepisi, is really quite fascinating, but Mr. Schepisi speaks in such a low, subdued voice that it is hard to retain interest in what he is saying for very long. This is quite a shame, but if you can manage it, this track is worth a listen, as you will gain insight into:
-- The selection of the music in the film (and how it was used to bridge the gap between generations).
-- How Cameron Douglas had to audition, and agree to hire an acting coach, to receive the part of Asher.
-- The shooting schedule had to be adjusted to a maximum of 7 hours on occasion, to accommodate Kirk’s energy level. Hey that’s not too much to ask for an 86-year-old screen legend, is it?
-- The intent of the opening scene, namely to introduce each character in a way that makes it clear they are related, yet also encapsulates their own little world.
Mr. Schepisi also provides some insight into how he sets up and edits scenes, uses camera angles to give the audience a break after “difficult” scenes (those with lots of cuts and close-ups), and relies on sound overlap instead of camera fades to establish movement at certain points in the film. Overall, this is a fairly interesting track, but Mr. Schepisi’s delivery makes it difficult to sustain enthusiasm for 109 minutes.
There are three deleted scenes:
--- “A Confused Evelyn Returns To Her Childhood Apartment”
Evelyn pays a visit to her old apartment, and momentarily forgets the year.
--- “The Grombergs Prepare To Leave For The Seder”
Evelyn and Mitchell have a playful exchange before leaving for Passover dinner, and Asher discusses how self-medicating helps him survive family dinners. This was a good scene, and probably should have been left in the film.
--- “The Anniversary Dinner (With Alternate Beginning)”
Alex and Rebecca share a glass of wine and exchange gifts on their Anniversary (his gift is much better!). Much like the scene that ends up in the final cut of the film.
All That Grit: Kirk Douglas and the Movies
This 7-minute featurette is a classy retrospective of Kirk Douglas’ 50-year, 86-film career. Michael and Diana Douglas discuss Kirk’s work ethic, and Bernadette Peters also offers her thoughts on his career. Finally Fred Schepisi chimes in on how he admires the intelligence and diversity of Mr. Douglas’ body of work.
Then comes the best part of the piece, as we hear from the man himself. Interestingly, Kirk describes how he relishes “playing the bad guy”. He also talks a bit about the impact of his stroke on his life, and the gratification he receives from people responding to his book My Stroke of Luck. All in all a very nice featurette, that pays appropriate tribute to Kirk Douglas’ legacy on film. Make sure to watch the intro to the credits for an amusing query from Kirk
There are 39 behind-the-scenes photos included, with plenty of shots of Kirk, Michael, and Cameron Douglas.
Other Great MGM Releases
Trailers are offered for: West Side Story: Special Edition DVD, Nicholas Nickleby: Special Edition DVD, Evelyn (DVD), and Dead Like Me. There is also cover art for Cast A Giant Shadow, A Chorus Line, The Vikings, and The Indian Fighter included, as well as a promotional short entitled “MGM Means Great Movies”, which is essentially a brief montage of different hit films released by MGM over the years.
The Score Card
The Last Word
When it comes down to it, It Runs In The Family is much more than a Douglas family affair. It is a touching, although somewhat challenging look at how three generations of a dysfunctional family deal with (and overcome) their issues with each other. Obviously, the teaming of film icon Kirk Douglas with film icon (and son) Michael Douglas gets top billing here, and their chemistry in this film is remarkable. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the rest of the cast (except Michael’s son Cameron Douglas) is up to the challenge as well.
As far as the disc is concerned, MGM has generated a solid transfer, a particularly noteworthy (for this genre) audio track, and a nice compliment of extras, although the commentary track is a bit dull. I particularly enjoyed the tasteful “All That Grit” retrospective on the career of Kirk Douglas, which was probably made more insightful due to the participation of his family members.
This film’s subject matter automatically puts it into the “not for everyone” category, so I cannot give it my unqualified recommendation, but I enjoyed the 109 minutes I spent with the Gromberg family. At the very least, it made me thankful that my own life is not filled with so much dischord ! Recommended!!!
October 21st, 2003