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'Domestic Disturbance'

'Disturbance' puts a boy in danger, but someone stole the suspense

Friday, November 02, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Domestic Disturbance" contains all the ingredients for a potent psychological drama -- divorced parents, rebellious child, new stepfather, secrets and lies. Instead, director Harold Becker and screenwriter Lewis Colick offer a paint-by-numbers thriller devoid of any real suspense or multidimensional characters.

'Domestic Disturbance'

RATING: PG-13, for violence, brief sexuality and language

STARRING: John Travolta, Vince Vaughn

DIRECTOR: Harold Becker

WEB SITE: www.domestic



John Travolta, trying to bounce back from yet another career slump, plays Frank Morrison, a Maryland boat builder who loves his work so much that he doesn't charge people enough for it. His ex-wife, Susan (Teri Polo), is about to marry Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), who arrived in town a few years before with enough money -- and willingness to spend it on civic causes -- to ingratiate himself with the locals.

But son Danny (Matt O'Leary) has been signaling his anger over his parents' breakup through petty acts of vandalism. The last thing he wants is a stepfather, but Frank, who has accepted the inevitable, encourages Danny to do the same. He tries, but the boy's rebelliousness kicks up before long.

We know Rick is hiding something about his past from the moment that Ray Coleman (Steve Buscemi) shows up at the wedding and Rick looks at him like he just realized he has to take out the trash. Actually, just the fact that it's Buscemi -- everybody's favorite movie scuzzball -- is enough to make us wonder how Rick really became wealthy.

But "Domestic Disturbance" goes out of its way to telegraph every plot point. In the film's pivotal scene, Danny sees what Rick doesn't want him to see. The boy is justly frightened, but when he tries to tell people what happened, no one will believe him -- the boy has a history of making up lies that stems from his problems at home.

We know he's not lying, but that's precisely the problem. If the movie didn't insist on showing us exactly what transpired, we would be asking ourselves the same questions as some of the characters in the movie.

If Danny's telling the truth, he's in real danger. If he's lying, he's making up horrible accusations against the man his mother loves. We would share Frank's apprehension as he tried to work it out, concerned about the physical and emotional well-being of his son.

Instead, we know it's just a matter of time before good confronts evil. If only real life resolved that conflict as quickly and with such certainty as the typical Hollywood hack job.

By short-circuiting any suspense, the movie also shortchanges the characters. Travolta plays a man whose flaws don't matter because he loves his son. Hell, the flaws are what would make him interesting. Vaughn plays a wolf in sheep's clothing, Polo is the woman in jeopardy, Buscemi is essentially the McGuffin.

O'Leary, making his feature debut, does a good job with what is really the film's central role. But even Danny never expands beyond the initial concept -- a troubled kid with a good heart.

Director Becker made his mark more than 20 years ago with "The Onion Field," and it's all been largely downhill from there -- he is probably best known for "Sea of Love," "Malice" and "City Hall."

Screenwriter Colick also has a list of middling thrillers to his credit, including "Ghosts of Mississippi," "Judgment Night" and "Unlawful Entry." His best movies are "October Sky" and the recent Keanu Reeves movie "Hardball." Both films examine the troubled relationships between young boys and their real or surrogate fathers. Neither one is a thriller.

If only someone had taken that into account regarding "Domestic Disturbance."

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