Mood indigo

Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes is a sad, silky meditation on death

Don't let the title mislead you--Unstrung Heroes doesn't deal with an underdog sports team, or a state psychiatric hospital that wins big against the snobs of a private institution during field day.

Still, the film does deal with mental illness--not to mention cancer, religious faith, the human imagination, family relationships, and the road each of us chooses based on our childhood experiences. And although many of the characters face and in some sense master these daunting subjects, there really are no heroes in this directorial dramatic debut by actress Diane Keaton--only people who are busy digging their own foxholes to hide from the coming onslaught of sorrow.

This would seem an appropriate subject for Keaton, who made her actual feature filmmaking debut with a 1987 quasi-documentary called Heaven. If you don't recall that particular cinematic trifle, you're either part of a majority who missed it or a lucky subgroup of the minority who forgot it. Heaven was a precious mix of talking heads, representing various faiths, discussing the afterlife, interspersing their chatter with irrelevant scenes of chaos snipped from 40-year-old films. The whole weird, wasteful enterprise felt like a series of spoiled scraps from the floor of Woody Allen's editor--intensely personal confessions of faith followed by a glib one-liner or pop-culture disclaimer.

Unstrung Heroes is likely to repel some discerning filmgoers for almost the same reasons--too much attention to art-deco detail, a meandering story that hesitates whenever it wants to touch an emotional chord, then squanders the opportunity with an eccentric line-reading or an extravagant camera angle.

For much of this somber, sympathetic look at a boy coping with his mother's terminal illness, Keaton films the action as though she were videotaping Laura Ashley's new autumn line. Nobody in this golden-hued visit to the middle class of the early '60s, not even the most working-class of stiffs, looks shabby, and the dying generally receive their reward in the morning glow of the sun filtered through a nearby picture window.

But because Keaton is working with such powerful source material (Richard LaGravenese's screenplay of Franz Lidz's rollicking and poignant family memoir), her relentlessly sepia-toned approach to these lives is always in stride with the events that rattle them. Occasionally, when approach and intent unite, you may feel tears in your eyes.

Twelve-year-old Steven Lidz (Nathan Watt) is the unconfident, brooding oldest child of a strangely matched Jewish couple--beauty queen Selma (Andie MacDowell) and feverish inventor Sid (John Turturro). Sid is always bestowing home remedies and invented birthday gifts on his family, who've come to accept them gratefully as a substitute for real communication. Selma is the pampered, wine-drinking apple of her husband's eye, and the consoler of Steven and his baby sister Sandy (Kendra Krull). She is a "kept woman" in the truest sense of the phrase, coveted by Sid for her classical beauty and by Steven for the readiness of her touch, a comfort the boy's father denies him.

Suddenly, Nathan's mother is yanked even farther away from him. She comes down with a "nasty cold" that won't surrender to the busy-bee ministrations of her husband. Steven and Sandy learn from an adult's slip of the tongue that their mother is, in fact, languishing in the last stages of ovarian cancer.

Unstrung Heroes plays like Debra Winger's final hospital scenes in Terms of Endearment stretched into three acts. Here, the children must spend the length of the film trying to understand the strange new gloom that's befallen their house, but we're spared any heavy scenes of domestic anguish. Keaton doesn't want to loiter too long on one particular tragedy--she skips across several, making ripples that intrigue but rarely satisfy us.

Still, the film's view of death is as astutely childlike as that in The Indian in the Cupboard. Sudden, traumatic separations are soothed by a descent into the imagination--in this case, the rather fractured, paranoid world vision shared by Steven's uncles Danny (Michael Richards from TV's "Seinfeld") and Arthur (Maury Chaykin).

Danny and Arthur are both schizophrenic, although their conditions are more unflatteringly detailed in Lidz's book than Keaton's willowy adaptation. They're also the only stable source of encouragement for Steven once the boy's mother falls ill and takes to haunting her bedroom.

Steven, who's begun an intense fascination with his fading mother that soon turns into a rivalry with his overprotective father, begs to move into the sleazy downtown hotel where his uncles reside. He asks to stay there until his mother "gets well," a polite deference to the lie his parents continue to tell him.

Keaton introduces us to the cavernous world of Danny and Arthur with an excellent sequence that follows Steven as he ventures down the yellow newspaper-stacked hallways of the apartment belonging to these obsessives. Each doorway opens into its own funhouse--a room lined ceiling to floor with exquisitely framed black and white photos of strangers, a closet filled to the very top with rubber balls of all sizes and shapes.

Arthur takes a daily trek to the city sewer, where he collects lost balls and wedding cake tops and candlesticks and stows them in store-like shelves in the apartment. Danny is the intellectual of the pair, a paranoid conspiracy theorist and proud Zionist who discovers anti-Semitism under every rock (declaring President Eisenhower a "Jew hater," he interprets the man's most famous campaign slogan thusly: "'I Like Ike,' hah! That translates to 'I Hate Kikes' in gentile!")

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