When Gramma leaves Grampa, what to do?

The Thing About My Folks
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By Brooks Robards - August 9, 2007

Adult children don't expect their aging fathers to receive "Dear John" letters, but that's what happens in "The Thing About My Folks," showing Sunday, August 12, at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. It's the final film selection from the Boston Jewish Film Festival that is part of the Hebrew Center's Summer Institute.

Veteran actor Peter Falk plays Sam Kleinman, the dad who shows up at his son Ben's house, hugs his granddaughters and drops the bomb that his wife has left him. Usually in comedies of this sort, it's the husband who has disappeared or died. Paul Reiser, who wrote the script and plays Ben, turns the stereotype upside down, making Sam into the quirky, slightly batty senior citizen, a role usually reserved for elderly women.

A harried Ben consults with his three sisters, and then decides to leave behind his own family, taking his dad with him instead to look at property in upstate New York. Meanwhile the women try to figure out where Mom, played with aplomb by Olympia Dukakis, has disappeared to. Sam and Ben get busy bonding as the movie, directed by Raymond De Felitta, ambles from one aimless, macho adventure to the next.

Before the bonding can get underway, though, Ben needs to air a few issues he has with his dad. They happen to be the same ones his mother Muriel complained about in a letter written just before Ben was born that Sam has never seen. Ben discovered it in his mother's drawer and swiped it at age 14.

Then, just in case anyone thought Ben's anger signified something serious or that the Kleinman family was truly dysfunctional, Ben manages to wreck the car he and his father are driving in. Clearly it's time for Sam to get back behind the wheel.

When a vintage Ford Deluxe that has been his dream-mobile since youth suddenly materializes to replace the damaged vehicle, he accomplishes that. As they drive, Ben airs complaints that his workaholic father never took him camping or fishing as a kid. Sam doesn't want him to be resentful, so off they go.

Decked out in an excess of fly-fishing apparel, father and son spend enough time standing around in water holding fishing poles to talk over what made Mother Muriel so unhappy and what Sam thinks about it. They even set free the one fish they catch.

Next comes their first baseball game together, played by an upstate farm team, the Sawbellies, who remain scoreless through the 16th inning. Now the father-son conversations move on to how Sam and Muriel met and when they first slept together. Cut to father and son in a local tavern, where they drink, play pool, get into a fight, pick up a mother-daughter team of honeys, dance a little and continue their heart-to-heart.

Ben hasn't finished agonizing over his father's inability to keep his mother happy and his need as a child to compensate for his father's failings. But an excess of alcohol kicks in, and he throws up what surely must be anger as much as booze. Father and son stagger off into the night, arm in arm, lie down under the stars in what passes for camping and talk some more until Sam passes out. He wakes to find Ben gone.

Not to worry, though. Ben has simply walked over to a nearby pay phone to check in with his sisters. At this point, the meandering plot picks up. In quick order, Reiser lets the audience know what led Muriel to leave, why she wrote the letter Ben found at age 14 and how Mom and Dad end up. The ending has a little schmaltz, a little pain.

In case you haven't figured it out, "The Thing About My Folks" is not a movie packed with surprises or depth. Its sentiments too often seem like reheated sitcom clichés about family life that are only as Jewish as the characters' New York accents.

In its worst moments, the movie relies on flatulence for its laughs. At its best, it lets Ben teach his dad a few things about pleasing women. Its warm-and-fuzzy heart is in the right place, and watching actors the caliber of Falk, Reiser and Dukakis (even though she only appears in the last few scenes) can enliven even the most tired and stilted stereotypes.

"The Thing About My Folks," Sunday, August 12, 7:30 p.m. Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, 130 Center Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets, $10.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.