There’s a new delinquent on the block, and this one is no juvenile. He’s older, wearier, sometimes a lot meaner; he goes by the name of Dad. Taking a cue, perhaps, from the Oprah/Phil/Montel circuit, two new movies feature a major star (Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito) in the role of colorfully dysfunctional father figure. This Boy’s Life, which unfolds during the crew-cut ’50s, is a pressure-cooker melodrama about a rebellious teenager whose new stepfather (De Niro) turns out to be a macho tyrant. Jack the Bear, set two decades later, is the warm-and-fuzzy, TV-style portrait of a charmingly flaky widower (DeVito) who can’t seem to transform himself and his two sons into a viable family unit. One dad is bad to the bone, the other bursting with good intentions. Both scenarios, though, are rooted in the creeping awareness that fatherhood — strong, loving, all-American fatherhood — ain’t what it used to be.
It has become clear that Robert De Niro doesn’t really ignite as an actor unless he’s playing psychopaths or thugs. Dwight Hansen, the raging disciplinarian at the center of This Boy’s Life, would seem to be a role ideally suited to his gift for emotionally brutal extremes. Directed by the Scottish-born Michael Caton-Jones (Doc Hollywood, Scandal), this adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir begins on a note of infectious optimism, as Caroline Wolff (Ellen Barkin), a spunky divorcée in blond curls and pedal pushers, sets out on a cross-country road trip with her teenage son, Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The pace is fleet and inviting, David Watkins’ cinematography is candy for the eyes, and the characters’ testy banter appealingly recalls the high-spirited mother-son debates in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) — no coincidence, considering that both movies were written by Robert Getchell.
Caroline seems unusually independent for a single ’50s mom, but she’s still hungry for stability. So when Dwight, a courtly mechanic and ex-Navy man, comes along, she allows herself to be swept up in his promise of a new life. The audience is supposed to be swept up too. Except that from the moment De Niro bursts on screen, flaunting his ugly buzz cut and dorky fake grin, making banter so robotically ”cheery” he sounds like an escaped mental patient, it’s obvious that something is very, very wrong with this man.
Before long, Dwight has married Caroline, moved her and Toby up to his big, ramshackle house in Concrete, Wash. (where he has three mysteriously normal children of his own), and dedicated himself to making Toby walk the straight and narrow. The boy has begun to flirt with defiant youth postures, smoking in school and slicking his hair back into a DA; the Oedipal duel between these two becomes a domestic microcosm of the ’50s war between conformity and rebellion. As Dwight subjects Toby to relentless bouts of ”kill or cure” discipline, the movie turns into a series of sadistic set pieces: Dwight drunkenly swerving his car as he teases Toby for being a ”hotshot”; Dwight screaming at Toby for watching TV after school; Dwight banging Toby’s head on the floorboards for the grievous sin of having thrown away a not-quite-empty jar of mustard. De Niro isn’t just in Toby’s face, he’s in your face. The whole movie is in your face.
Of course, no one would deny that living with an abusive parent is a true nightmare (and a depressingly common one). But for This Boy’s Life to work as ominous domestic drama, it’s essential that we see Dwight as a flesh-and-blood monster. De Niro, unfortunately, just seems to be reveling in the chance to play another viciously demented freak, like Cape Fear’s Max Cady. As Dwight, he mimics people with fey sarcasm, does his patented ”mean” look (turning down the corners of his mouth in fury), and keeps telling Toby to ”shut your goddamned pie hole.” We never do understand what drew Caroline to Dwight in the first place (Barkin just seems to drop out of the movie), and though De Niro is physically commanding — he makes the threat of violence scarily omnipresent — there are no shades to his hollow, exhibitionistic performance. His Dwight is like Jake LaMotta without the wounded core.
This Boy’s Life does offer an impressive re-creation of ’50s small-town life. And you can catch a glimpse of what the movie might have been in Leonardo DiCaprio’s eloquent performance as Toby, whose fear and helplessness can’t quite mask the pride that Dwight resents in him. (This evil stepfather doesn’t really want to shape Toby’s character; he wants to break him.) DiCaprio generates a compelling rapport with Jonah Blechman, who has a dreamy charisma as Toby’s best pal, Arthur (who has a crush on Toby). Their scenes evoke the poignance of teenagers whose culture won’t allow them to express the best of themselves. When these two are on screen, you can almost forget you’re trapped in a movie that turns parental abuse into high-grade exploitation.
After the fatherhood-as-living-hell claustrophobia of This Boy’s Life, Jack the Bear, set in the hang-loose early ’70s, seems like a shot of relief. DeVito plays John Leary, a warm and loving single dad who has just moved with his two sons to Oakland, Calif. John is able to connect with his kids because he’s an overgrown kid himself. He lacks discipline, finesse, responsibility. The host of a late-night horror-movie show, he’s a clownish extrovert who swills martinis to drown his misery over his wife’s tragic death. DeVito has some engaging, if hammy, moments, and Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. gives a refreshingly open performance as his teenage son, Jack, who is struggling to find his place in a strange new town. Early on, the movie captures the peculiar tensions of a family that is falling apart precisely because it’s too neurotically close-knit.
Yet the more Jack the Bear goes on, the less it rings true. The director, Marshall Herskovitz (the cocreator of thirtysomething), piles on overblown dramatic crises as if he were trying to cram 12 episodes of a TV show into one movie. Instead of the scruffy slice of life that seemed promised, the film grows lurid and synthetic, becoming a high-concept To Kill a Mockingbird, with the Leary family menaced by the monster across the street — a real-life Boo Radley named Norman (Gary Sinise), who turns out to be a Nazi child-napper. What makes this gothic hugger-mugger so bogus is that it’s Herskovitz’s transparent attempt to turn DeVito’s flawed, shlumpy John into a heroic savior. Fatherhood doesn’t need this sort of teary sanctification any more than it needs the demonizing histrionics of This Boy’s Life. Moviegoers — and dads — deserve better. Both films: C