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Tales of the Father

Though not true to its source, Roommates is a delight

Picture this: A bunch of Hollywood suits sitting around discussing making a movie from a memoir about the two most important people in the memoirist's life: his grandfather, who raised him and his children, and his wife, who suffered a tragic death. The suits especially like the grandfather idea. The guy lived to be 107, worked as a baker into his 100s, beat cancer, began taking care of his grandchild in his 70s and 30 years later similarly reared his great grandchildren, and was as irascible as he was vibrant right up to the day he died. The wife, as independent and strong-willed as the old patriarch, battled her father-in-law for acceptance, and after the two grew to respect and maybe even love each other, grew ill and began to waste away. The suits, reminding themselves that calamity-of-the-week docudramas get good ratings on TV, know they'd be crazy to pass this rich material up.

But they have a few suggestions for the memoirist. The old man? You don't want to limit your audience, so lose the fact that he's Jewish. He can still be an immigrant, but even though the memoir is steeped in Jewish sensibilities, there's no need for ethnicity in a movie about family, that most universal of subjects. Yes, let him dispense wisdom with a twinkle in the eye -- just not like a rabbi, is all.

Oh, and about the tragedy? Even though your memoir -- and we like the title so we'll keep it for the movie -- Roommates, is about housemates, we don't want to complicate things, do we? So we don't really need to explore too much how the old man cares for his great grandchildren while his grandson is too distraught to do so, because the audience will get the idea, right?

But we don't want too many tears in our movie. The tragedy that occurs to Michael's wife: let's downplay that, too. As we understand it, your wife actually suffered a slow, agonizing death. No good. She should die immediately. On an operating table (yeah). In a hospital where Michael is a doctor (yeah). On the day he's about to perform his first open-heart surgery (yeah). We can leave in the part when Rocky gets cancer. But we can't leave in a principal setting. Who on earth would want to watch a movie set in Houston? Houston doesn't have a personality. Let's move it to, say, Pittsburgh....

And so it might well have gone for Max Apple, the novelist, short story writer and Rice University professor who co-wrote (with Stephen Metcalfe) this shamelessly manipulative, thoroughly charming movie. Like Apple's fiction, the movie is filled with humor and pathos and humanity and sentiment, even if at times it's a little too cute.

Cute wouldn't be the first word to come to mind about Rocky, but growling and grumbling his way into everybody's hearts, Peter Falk makes the old coot with, as the movie says, "the personality of a clenched fist," into a real sweetie. Greg Cannom's makeup is lifelike but it's Falk's endearingly backboned performance that makes Rocky memorable. A paradoxical rock in a hard place, Falk's Rocky blesses when he blusters and eases up while standing firm. The actor curses in his sleep -- in Polish -- so engagingly that it's clear why the tirades become toddler Michael's lullabies. A sure Oscar-nominee next year, Falk is larger than life here.

D.B. Sweeney's needy Michael is appealing and Julianne Moore is lovely as his spirited wife, but the movie belongs to Falk. Peter Yates directs here as he did in Breaking Away: Roommates is episodic, sentimental -- and heartwarming. A minor movie that hits a home run, it even has a scene in which young Michael gets a foul ball -- when Rocky headbutts the guy next to him out of the way. At its core, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

Roommates.
Directed by Peter Yates. With Peter Falk, D.B. Sweeney, Julianne Moore.
Rated PG.
109 minutes.

 
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