Some klutzy and lonely kids grow up to be publicists; others become critics. But that’s another movie. In the klutzily titled, secretly intelligent Disney’s The Kid, chubby, dorky, vulnerable 8-year-old Rusty Duritz (Spencer Breslin) survives various traumas of comfortable American suburban childhood to mature into trim, driven, impermeable 40-year-old Russ Duritz (Bruce Willis). Russ is a man so armored in his lucrative career as an image consultant that he has no room for other living things in his big, sterile mansion — not a wife, not a dog, not even his own aging father.
He refuses to get serious about a charming colleague, Amy (Emily Mortimer), when the perfect lady offers all the dewy practicality of Donna Reed and Brit sparkle of Liz Hurley combined. (Poor Mortimer was previously rejected by Hugh Grant in Notting Hill.) His only meaningful human contact is with his forbearing executive assistant, Janet (who, as played with a cleansing spritz of lemon by the divine Lily Tomlin, deserves a movie or TV series of her own). And for a while, only the recurring twitch in Russ’ left eye suggests the stress of lovelessness.
But soon enough, this middle-aged workaholic is visited by a much less dismissable messenger of breakdown: Rusty, his childhood self, still a gawky, easily bullied fat kid dreaming of piloting a plane when he grows up. For Russ, the fully manifest Rusty is a living nightmare, a reminder of the pathetic little loser he thought he had out-jogged, and a new twist on a Dickens classic, in which the Ghost of Christmas Past is the worst apparition of all.
To the boy, meanwhile, loserdom will be his Christmas Future, if he’s really going to turn into such a stuffy disappointment. Together, in a newsworthy advance on psychoanalysis, Rusty/Russ break old patterns and fly free as boy and man.
The possessive Disney’s has been appended to The Kid, one assumes, to advertise that children, too, will have fun at this optimistic fable. And by all means they will, especially because young Breslin, making his feature debut, is such a natural, funny, unmannered boy. (He may grow up to be that bedeviled ham Mason Reese, but for now he’s got the exasperated dignity — and squooshed rosebud features — of Joan Cusack.) Yet The Kid is foremost a parable for adults — particularly men, particularly men who keep Slinkys and Koosh balls on their office desks and wear their baseball caps backward. (Oh, wait, those are Disney executives.)
For every moment of telegraphed unsubtlety directed by Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon) with his usual crayon box of primary colors, bits of irrepressibly sophisticated, honest dialogue by screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats & Dogs) break through. (Many of the best lines are uttered by Tomlin. ”Take your phone off — you’re with a human now,” she instructs Russ, who is hooked up to a hands-free headset; ”I’ll get the power taken out in Atlanta,” she archly promises her boss, who’s upset at the performance of a client appearing live on CNN.) For a Disney-brand feel-good movie about the importance of being true to oneself and yada yada yada, and for a post-Peter Pan story following in the retro grooves of Big, Mumford, Pleasantville, and Frequency, The Kid is much more agreeably, interestingly irritable and disconsolate than Turteltaub can handle. Hurrah for the guy’s emotional breakthrough, the movie implies — but what a jerk.
And through it all, Bruce Willis deserves full props. I can think of few huge Hollywood stars so carefree and unself-conscious about trying different genres, win or lose. As it turns out, this father of three has a valuable talent for uncloying interaction with child costars. The same unpatronizing respect he showed in The Sixth Sense — gallantly ceding the spotlight to Haley Joel Osment — is likewise palpable in his relaxed work with Breslin. Willis makes Russ a believable schmuck (smirk! smirk!) who’s rotten to Rusty, but never at Breslin’s expense. For that matter, Willis is also in synch with Tomlin, as well as with Jean Smart in yet another tasty small role, as a Southern newscaster who receives blunt image advice from her airplane seatmate. That Willis has no chemistry with Mortimer is a problem. But then, her character is more a symbol of nurturing lover/mother than an actual woman.
”You could have been a great man,” Amy tells Russ, in one of the saddest sentences an adult woman could ever say to any adult who’s not a politician. If The Kid convinces any 40-year-olds to rethink their walking-and-talking use of hands-free telephones, that’ll be greatness enough.