It’s worth noting up front that Unstrung Heroes is based on a memoir. Journalist Franz Lidz wrote the book about his own family, his own coming of age and the loss of his mother to cancer. I point this out because the family at the center of Unstrung Heroes is so quirky that it’s tempting to write them off as fiction, as an only-in-the-movies kind of family. But while I haven’t read Unstrung Heroes, I’ve read some of the beautiful essays that Lidz wrote about his family for Sports Illustrated. Taking him at his word, he grew up in a truly eccentric family.
Director Diane Keaton, a bit quirky herself, handles the story of the Lidz family with tenderness and restraint. It’s 1960 Los Angeles, and Steven/Franz (the name change is explained in the film) Lidz is a 12 year old who doesn’t understand his father. That’s a common enough problem for 12 year olds, but Steven (Nathan Watt) is not without just cause. His father, Sid (John Turturro), is an eccentric inventor – creative, driven, but not especially attentive or nurturing. Sid prides himself on being a hyper-rationalist who has never met a problem he can’t solve.
As strange as Sid might seem to his son (in an early scene Steven asks his mother if Sid is an alien), his idiosyncracies pale next to those of his brothers, Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin). Danny is loud, combative, and paranoid. A devout Jew, he despises antisemitism wherever he sees it – and he sees it everywhere. Arthur is a sweet, shy, rumpled hoarder. He always comes bearing odd gifts, roughly wrapped. Whereas Danny loudly berates those around him for being fascists and collaborators, there is not a harsh bone in Arthur’s body. Danny and Arthur live in a run down hotel, their apartment a labyrinth of unread newspapers and Arthur’s eccentric collections.
The warm sun at the center of the Lidz family’s orbit is Steven’s mother, Selma (Andie MacDowell). She is both direct and unflappably accepting, with an incisive eye for what the people she loves most need in any given moment. Selma holds things together, which makes it all the more devastating when she’s stricken with cancer. This is a problem Sid can’t solve, though God knows he tries, harassing her doctors with hypotheses and suggestions for treatment. He doesn’t know what to do with the fear and grief that take hold of him, and is ill equipped to shepherd Steven and his younger sister through what’s ahead. Home is suddenly not a shelter for Steven, and he runs away to – of all places – Danny and Arthur’s apartment.
Selma makes the decision to allow Steven to stay with his uncles, although she worries aloud that he may become like them. Her fears are not unfounded, as he’s soon wearing disguises to evade the authorities, and protesting at school by loudly singing The Internationale while his classmates sing the National Anthem. Sid is more alarmed by another change in Steven – an embrace of the religious faith that Sid has so vehemently rejected. Steven even decides he wants to be Bat Mitvahed, and finds support from Selma. Facing her own death, Selma is open to the idea of something beyond rational understanding.
Unstrung Heroes leads in the tear-inducing direction you would expect. It might have seemed excessively maudlin if not elevated by the cast. As Danny, Michael Richards is a more volatile version of Seinfeld’s Kramer. He gets the most comic moments in the film, although his mental illness is not played just for laughs. Maury Chaykin’s performance as Arthur is so sweet, so lovable – and yet somehow completely believable. John Turturro powerfully communicates Sid’s pain and emotional paralysis. He is not a bad father, but in a real crisis he simply doesn’t know what to do or say. He is least available to his children when he is most needed.
Andie MacDowell is a beautiful actress, and as Selma she is at her loveliest. The physical beauty matters because it seems to radiate out of her, rather than resting on the surface. Even the cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael communicates what Selma is to her family. Most of the scenes are muted, desaturated. But when Selma is onscreen she brings a warm, golden hue with her. This makes it all the more affecting when disease begins to alter her appearance. After spending the summer with his uncles, Steven comes home to find Selma gaunt, sallow, her teeth discolored. It’s a terrific scene – the lighting and angle making Selma briefly look frightening, as she truly is to Steven in that moment. Anyone who has watched cancer ravage someone you love will understand.
Unfortunately, that scene only highlights what a disappointment Selma’s final scene is. Diane Keaton settles for a very Hollywood-beautiful death. It’s Bette Davis in Dark Victory: self aware, peaceful, pretty to the very end. Unfortunately, real death by disease tends to be more grinding and slow, taking the loved one bit by bit. Even the real Franz Lidz was bothered by how Unstrung Heroes handled his mother’s death, saying that the onscreen Selma died not of cancer but of “Old Movie Disease”. It’s a disappointing blunder in an otherwise fine film.
I must give a nod to Thomas Newman for Unstrung Heroes‘ score: sometimes lilting, sometimes eerie, it’s strangeness suiting the strangeness of the characters onscreen. It sounds wonderful on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray. This new release includes an interview with Andie MacDowell and an handful of contemporaneous trailers.