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!")

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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