Jack the Bear

(Marshall Herskovitz, USA, 1993)


It probably all started with Rob Reiner's fine Stand By Me in 1986: movies throughout the '80s and '90s increasingly fell prey to a narrative style made popular by TV's The Wonder Years.

In stories of this type, the turbulent emotional events of family life are heavily overlaid with the reflective musings of a child, speaking from some older and wiser vantage point. It is an often dreary, heavily laboured, highly moralistic form of screen narrative.

You know that Jack the Bear is fully in this mode when, the opening credits scarcely over, little Jack (Robert J. Steinmiller) is already spelling out the message of the film: "I didn't know I would learn that year that monsters are real."

The unreal monsters, by contrast, are the ones his father John (Danny De Vito) presents on late night TV as a garish horror movie host. But even Dad, vulgar schlockmeister that he is, has a message to peddle: he unsubtly interrupts a broadcast of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to warn the local community of a neo-Nazi insurgence.

Father and son know this first-hand, for they have an ugly neighbour (Gary Sinise) who embodies the very worst of humankind. In Joe Dante's The 'burbs (1989) a similar plot premise cued a wild, ever-shifting horror-comedy of paranoia. Here, the moral is clean and clear.

The project marks an inauspicious meeting of talents: scriptwriter Steven Zaillian, specialist in simplistic dramas (like Schindler's List, 1993), with director Marshall Herskovitz, co-creator of TV's warm and fuzzy thirtysomething. The result is an unchallenging male weepie of the worst sort.

MORE Zaillian The Interpreter, A Civil Action, Mission: Impossible

© Adrian Martin February 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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