Mood indigo

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

Unstrung Heroes celebrates eccentricity, but hardly glamorizes it. On vacation from school and his mother's ordeal, Steven devotes himself to his uncles' preoccupations--rubber ball-catching, evading the landlord, chanting traditional Hebrew prayers over each meal--and shapes an identity out of his own wandering imagination. This was the very thing Sid most wanted to prevent in Steven--what he calls "the tragedy of an undisciplined mind," referring to his space-cadet brothers. But somewhere between their seductive lunar orbits and the cruel rationalism of his father, Steven learns to grieve for his mother as she slowly deteriorates.

At its core, the film is obsessed with mortality and honoring the dead. Sid, Danny, and Arthur make regular visits to their mother's grave, where the schizophrenic pair always leave gifts. Sid works overtime to save his wife from her fatal diagnosis, pumping her full of ions and quarantining her away from the children she loves, even as he desperately wants to keep his son from awakening to the religious traditions he rejected as an adult.

And the whole time, of course, Steven keeps his eyes trained with a gentleman caller's patience on his lovely mother. Once you learn that Andie MacDowell was pregnant throughout her role as the declining Selma, you can't help but read a certain amount of dread and mystery into her performance. Whether that's an honest calculation or a leap of faith, MacDowell exhibits a kind of queenly benevolence that requires less technique than presence, and therefore suits her perfectly. Like Shelley Duvall under the peak of Robert Altman's tutelage, she has gained enough confidence as an actress to know when she needs to glide on her riveting looks.

John Turturro delivers a secular version of his grotesquely ethnic Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show--here he strolls through his role as a Jewish scientist who's rejected his family's faith for the comfortable formulas of science and mathematics. Turturro is stuck with playing the crab for most of the film, but Keaton's final image, with the actor fidgeting and grimacing as he sits for a family portrait, throws a bright light across the performance that preceded it.

The movie's most problematic element is also its most important--young Steven, the angry, restless boy who craves stimulation. As played by Nathan Watt, the character doesn't always react convincingly to his circumstances. We've recently been spoiled by some haunting performances from child actors--Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire; Brad Renfro in The Client; Pee Wee Love in Clockers--so it may be just the sour aftertaste of unreasonable expectations. But Watt sometimes fidgets and glances off-camera when the moment calls for him to deliver the goods, especially in the latter half of the film, when he is the glue that keeps everyone connected.

But if Watt sometimes strikes a false note, he's never less than comfortable in his surroundings. Keaton doesn't always display a firm hand when it comes to arranging confrontations among her performers, but she has clearly mastered the cinematic art of the quiet moment. There are plenty of them here--mischievous pranks by kids; stolen moments of romance by adults; and the serene pursuits of deranged minds.

This carnival of characterizations produces a mirage-like effect--you'll remember many more subtleties than you actually see in Unstrung Heroes, because Keaton is so detail-obsessed when she records each image. You recall the film like a series of snapshot stills--an impression the director encourages with constant visual references to old photographs, home movies, and illustrations.

Unstrung Heroes says little about Diane Keaton's future as a filmmaker except that she knows how to negotiate lights with a cinematographer, and history may bury it among the auteur curios of actor-directors such as Sondra Locke, Emilio Estevez, and Campbell Scott. But this movie deserves better than that, even if its filmmaker doesn't always maintain the necessary tempo. This silken fable about death and family is too unusual and, in its own polite way, too honest to ignore.

Unstrung Heroes. Hollywood Pictures. Andie MacDowell, John Turturro, Nathan Watt. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the book by Franz Lidz. Directed by Diane Keaton. Opens September 22.

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