Jack the Bear
1993 Directed by Marshall Hershovitz. Starring Danny DeVito, Robert J. Steinmiller, Miko Hughes, Gary Sinise, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Andrea Marcovicci, Art Lafleur, Reese Witherspoon.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 9, 1993
Jack the Bear is a bear alright -- at times warm and cuddly like a panda but still a beast that you might not want to get too close to. Based on the popular novel by Dan McCall, this story of a father and two sons in 1972 Oakland, California, trying to hold together emotionally following the accidental death of their wife and mother, has many touching and appealing moments. The role of John Leary is a good one for DeVito, a character with many dimensions: bereaved spouse, good-time dad, local TV host of the nightly monster movie show, problem alcoholic. The story is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Jack (Steinmiller, Jr.) who's old beyond his years. At the outset, Jack's voiceover informs us that this is a story about the year he learned that monsters only reside within ourselves. His younger brother Dylan (Hughes) plays an adorable three-year-old scene stealer. Marcovicci (who, in the past has played opposite DeVito as Louie DePalma's love interest on Taxi) is cast in the thankless role of dead Elizabeth Leary -- which means that she only appears in hazy, soft-focus flashbacks or as an unfortunate stiff in a casket. Despite the movie's good cheer and deep currents of jocularity, there is a gloominess at the heart of this story: the suburban dream turned nightmarish, an elegy for lost innocence and fear of the unknown future. Terrible things happen to these characters and because it takes the movie a really long time to establish any clear narrative objectives, we begin to wonder why we should get involved with these people at all. And when the movie finally does adopt an identifiable plotline in the third act, it's forced into it by the need to resolve a hideous kidnapping and its upsetting aftermath. Though the sinister neighbor responsible for this action is played with deft aplomb by Sinise, the effect is almost too much. The criminal aspects of the story seem extraneous, like some artificial propulsion device. It all leads to a sob-a-rama ending which leaves not a dry eye in the house. Director Hershovitz was one of the creators of TV's thirtysomething and that background in weekly television plot structuring may be partly responsible for Jack the Bear's narrative quagmire. Though not entirely successful, Jack the Bear is still a highly watchable movie, mostly due to DeVito's performance and the way his character intersects with all the other people in his life. And though there are lots of kids in this movie, don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a kids' movie. There's a deep brooding and uncertainty at the heart of this bear that's anything but kid stuff.