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This movie creates a real and engaging feeling for the title character's life -- his ridiculous childhood, with seedy parents each pretending in their own perverse ways to give him wholesome roots, followed by his self-led path into adulthood and sincere, anti-authority liberalism. That it creates an authentic and engaging world is the best I can say for the movie as a whole, because the story lacks a real "hook" (the fake scandal that's meant to hook you and anchor the story never amounts to much and it's not even interesting), and the plotting of that misfired story sort of ambles wherever it feels like going, without any belief in itself. The acting is good (often very good), so there's never any question that the characters themselves care about the story, but they rarely reach through the screen and make you care too.
It's only when the movie stops narrating a story and instead admits to being simply a pastiche of one man's big house of a life, that it really pulls you in and make you glad to be ambling through its comfortably unconventional rooms.
At the heart of this film's big house of a life is not Joshua (he's too busy thinking the story is important) -- no, the real heart of this movie, when it's honest, is Alan Arkin's thoroughly delightful, effortlessly expert, full incarnation of Joshua's father. Reuben is a mid-level crook who breezes through his shady life with a flashy white suit, a profound love for his son, a Talmudic view of the big picture, and an interpretation of the Bible that sounds like the treatment for an old boxing movie. He is an absolute treat every moment he's on screen. I'm tempted to quote some of his best lines here, but it's not the lines that do it; it's Arkin's subtly hilarious and fully human expression of this completely original character that makes you want to rewind after each of his scenes and watch it again.
In fact, if the story doesn't hold your interest (and it probably won't), I recommend giving up and simply forward-searching from one Arkin scene to the next, maybe stopping to watch the bizarre strip-tease Bar Mitvah party scene.
Michael Sarrazin is the second gem in this movie, but his brief screen time is only enough to show you that he is one brilliant actor. His delivery of a two-word line ("Excuse me," in tennis whites) fully conveys an entire character -- privileged childhood, screwed-up adolescence, class arrogance that he wears with perfect grace over his complete failure as a grown-up, and all of this in just two words. His other moments are just as good; I wanted more of them.
Now, about James Woods. Critics said he gave a "creditable" performance as Joshua, but I don't want "creditable" in the lead role -- I want to care about him, and I never once cared about Joshua (except in childhood scenes, played by more likable actors). The adult Joshua is supposed to be a charmer, and Woods' Joshua might charm the other characters, but that's only because the script says he does. He never charms the viewer, and this is the film's biggest flaw.
I recommend this movie not for its story or lead performances, but for its ambiance and especially for Arkin. This may be his finest comic performance on film.
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