1995, PG, 108 min. Directed by Peter Yates. Starring Peter Falk, D.B. Sweeney, Julianne Moore, Ellen Burstyn.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., March 10, 1995
“Family takes care of family,” snarls 75-year-old Rocky Holeczek, Polish immigrant, baker, and crusty patriarch of a Pittsburgh family which has just endured a tragedy that's left its youngest member, six-year-old Michael, an orphan. It's the kind of declaration that characterizes Rocky: plain, blunt, black-and-white. Rocky leaves no room for subtlety or shadings and no room for discussion. What he does leave room for is Michael, and the pair share a life together -- and much of the time, a room -- for another 32 years. This new film from director Peter Yates (The Year of the Comet, Breaking Away) follows the stormy relationship of this odd couple through Michael's growing up, years in med school, marriage, and personal tragedy, and it strives for the sort of simple honesty of Rocky and his aphorisms. But its reliance on dramatic shorthand and clichéd scenes make the film too often feel like just another by-the-numbers show-biz soaper. In skimming over three decades of events, offering only glimpses of their emotional impact on the characters, the film leaves Michael and some supporting figures looking rather aloof and shallow. Combined with obvious foreshadowing (as soon as a character says, “I'll be right back” and they show a wet road, we know she's history) and obvious resolutions (Michael's emotional journey is complete when he tells his mother-in-law, “Family takes care of family!”), the tale comes across as simplistic and rote. It's a disservice to the actors, who fight to add depth to their characters, particularly Peter Falk, whose Rocky barks and snores and saves the day with crotchety charisma. But it does a greater disservice to the real story of Roommates, as told by Max Apple in his book (helpfully included in the film's press kit). Apple, who teaches writing at Rice, really did have a Grandpa Rocky, with whom he shared a room from childhood through college and who helped hold Apple's family together well after his grandfather was 100. His account, rendered in prose as plain as Rocky's, is no less dramatic than the film's, yet it has layers the film doesn't. It's puzzling why the film misses them since Apple worked on the script, but it leaves the fullness of Rocky's story still found only on paper.