Domestic Disturbances

Pity the boy who cried wolf. Sure, for a while it was fun to watch the people come running to make sure everything was okay. But eventually, they stopped, and when real trouble came, no one would listen.

In the new thriller Domestic Disturbance, young Danny Morrison (Matthew O'Leary) has certainly cried wolf often enough. So when his step-father Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn) does turn out to be wearing sheep's clothing, everyone has a deaf ear.

It's only fitting, then, that John Travolta plays Danny's noble father Frank, because Travolta himself has cried "good movie!" often enough that his audiences should really stop listening.

Set in a peaceful village in Maine (with no Maine accents to be heard), the film has all the makings of a good one. Director Harold Becker wastes no time in getting us into the good stuff. We quickly learn how troubled Danny is, and that he usually acts out when his hopes for a perfect family life get dashed. So when mom Susan (Teri Polo) announces her engagement to Rick, only trouble can follow, and all of it gets established within the first five minutes.

Frank and Danny strike a deal. Both of them will try to give Rick a chance, if only to make Susan happy. And Rick does seem nice enough, until Vaughn lets his nice guy face slip a few times to reveal an echo of Norman Bates underneath. But perhaps that's only the audience's anticipation.

Actually, at the wedding a shifty uninvited guest appears, tensing Rick. Old buddy Ray (Steve Buscemi) lends an ominous note to the proceedings, and confuses Frank when he gives vague but conflicting stories about his relationship to Rick.

As usual, Buscemi gives this section a quirky, sleazy feel that livens things up. When Frank tries to engage him in conversation about the town, Buscemi offers, "you know what I notice? This town doesn't seem to have any adult bookstores."

Unfortunately for him and the audience, Ray can't be long for this world. Rick has too much to protect. And before the eyes of a frightened and stunned Danny, hiding in the back of Rick's SUV, Rick neatly punctures Ray's heart in the year's most bloodless heartless killing.

The film soon devolves into a series of (meant to be) heart-pounding set pieces. Danny tries to tell the police. Rick threatens to kill Frank if Danny doesn't stop. Frank threatens Rick. Rick threatens Frank. Rick threatens Danny again. And again. And after a while, nobody cares.

Becker shows admirable restraint with the material, almost as if he would like to be done with as quickly as we would. Many scenes could have fallen into visual cliches, but Becker won't have it. How can a director resist having a star dive into water with exploding fireballs hot on his back? The answer, my friend, lies with Becker.

By cutting out the fat, it reveals that there simply isn't much script. Or worse, if there was one, editors had to chop at it in order to achieve a PG-13. (Vaughn clearly had to re-dub an "f" word or two.)

Aside from the main plot, unpleasantness (what some of us might call characterization) exists only in allusion. Frank is never anything less than a heck of a dad, but hints abound that he lost custody of Danny due to alcoholism. After making that explicit, the movie turns around and shows him specifically not drinking, then getting accused by Susan and Rick of being drunk.

Though Rick is a well-respected businessman, the movie never gets around to explaining what it is he actually does, and how he can be good at it with only two years of a learning curve.

Of course, nobody actually works in this movie except Travolta the noble shipwright, making boats out of wood when people would really prefer plastic. Heck, the cops don't work; every step of the "mystery" gets solved by Travolta doing some very simple legwork and using some miracle search engine called "MSN.COM." Screenwriter Lewis Colick just couldn't be bothered with the details.

The cast struggles to make it all believable. Polo has earnest down pat, even if she does seem too young to have a troubled adolescent (and an ex-husband at least fifteen years her senior). Anyone who has seen Vaughn knows that he always brings an intensity to his roles no matter which side of the fence they are on (in this case, both). As Danny, O'Leary acts out well, but too often settles into a smugness that could only have come from his on-screen father.

Travolta coasts on his charm and built-up goodwill. While not nearly as bad as in Battlefield Earth, he still doesn't really work. Mostly he squints, looks troubled, and occasionally tries to look menacing. But not even loose flannel shirts, baggy pants and jackets can hide that Travolta has become America's Favorite Teddy Bear. It may be time to go back to character parts for him.

It all flies by in less than 90 minutes, ending on a ridiculously smug note, with one character's punishment being just flat out offensive as a choice. Had they cut out the few curse words Vaughn has been left with saying, this could easily have been a TV movie of the week.

Except, according to the networks, nobody is watching those, either.


What's it worth? $3.99

Derek McCaw

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