Out of every five people you meet, four feel that their mothers and/or fathers were wretched failures as parents. The sentiment can be kind of funny when you hear it from some stupid kid, but it isn't funny at all when--as is often the case--it has dogged and haunted the person into his adult life. Of course, most parents are sort of terrible, and some are truly ruinous to their children. But another reason so many people express disappointment about their folks is the boomer and postboomer generations' societal pressure to have perfect parents. All those crummy sitcoms took their toll. Plenty of people feel cheated if they weren't raised by Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and feel guilty because they feel cheated, and feel resentful because they feel guilty. Like Home Alone, Rob Reiner's new movie, North, is about some little turd (the title character) who's dissatisfied with his parents because they fail to make him the center of their universe at every second. Although this theme has made for sure-fire box office time and again, it seems to be more of a retroactive complaint on the part of adult screenwriters than it is a reflection of childhood worries. If memory serves, most kids are relieved when their parents aren't breathing down their necks all the time. It's only when we become whiny adults that it suddenly occurs to us that the reason we're so screwed up is that our parents didn't constantly lavish affection on us.
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Based on a novella (with amusing illustrations) by Alan Zweibel, North takes the form of a fanciful, episodic fable. North (Elijah Wood) declares himself a "free agent" and leaves his parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to roam the world in search of parents who are more suitably adoring. Each of North's visits with prospective folks allows Reiner the opportunity for a different satirical set piece, in the course of which North sees that the would-be parents, too, are unsuitable. With the Lone Star oil baron and baroness (Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire), for instance, we get a production number in the style of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the gist of which is that they expect North to eat himself fat, in the tradition of Texas bigness. The chipper, igloo-dwelling Eskimo parents (Graham Greene and Kathy Bates) cheerfully put North's prospective grandpa (Abe Vigoda) out to sea on an ice floe. I liked the moral of the story--that all parents have some sickening deficit; that if your parents don't actually abuse you, if their worst crime is being a bit distracted and self-centered, you've little enough to complain about. It's harder, though, to like the movie. The script, by Zweibel and Andrew Scheinman, is extremely thin on good jokes, and Reiner's comedic touch was way off this time. The adult actors (with the exception of Bruce Willis) play the nonjokes with leaden archness, and the wacky, cartoonish atmosphere for which Reiner is trying is lost amid all the bad timing and clunky, overwrought, often meanspirited gags. North has elements that give one flickers of hope for it--the good, kvetchy comic rhythms of Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus in the opening scene, or Vigoda's long face, or a few ripe line readings by Jon Lovitz as North's lawyer. Mathew McCurley is a scream as the kid who plays the school newspaper's Machiavellian editor, and the aforementioned Willis is the film's one consistent pleasure--he's an oasis of scruffy, laid-back charm as the Easter Bunny, North's Jiminy Cricket.
Critics seem to be bashing the film, not just saying that it's bad, but that it's ugly and deplorable. While this isn't inappropriate, it does make you wonder where such critical acumen was when these same critics reviewed Home Alone or Dennis the Menace. Lame though North is, in view of the fact that it's being singled out for a drubbing, this much more should be said for it: The film is categorically better--better cinematically and better morally--than Home Alone. In no way is it more superior, however, than in the work of its star, Elijah Wood, one of those rare child actors who is both competent and possessed of a heart (the best shot in the film may be of North lustily playing Tevye on his school stage). North stinks, but if you get stuck going to see it, comfort yourself with the thought of how much worse it would stink if you had to listen to all those lines recited by the inexpressive, eerily distant voice of Macaulay Culkin.