Jack the Bear isn’t a movie I remember well, but I strongly associate it with the doldrums of reviewing movies in the spring, when the Oscar-worthy material from the previous winter had finished cycling through our small Central Wisconsin town and the eagerly audience-friendly stuff was being held back for summer. Now, there’s a fairly ambitious year-round release schedule with only a handful of weekends (like, ahem, this one) devoid of movies that are interesting in one way or another. That wasn’t the case in the early nineteen-nineties. There were long stretches filled with the material in which the studios had no confidence. You know, like Jack the Bear. Interestingly, two of the more enduring name actors who appear in this film don’t get specifically named by me, even though I mention their characters. Gary Sinise plays the creepy neighbor and a young Reese Witherspoon is the cute classmate who figures in a childhood romance. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, before she started collecting Emmys like baseball cards, is also in the film. And the adapted screenplay is by Steve Zaillian, who had much better efforts to come this same year: his exceptional directorial debut and an Oscar-winning screenwriting effort on a film that needs to be in the conversation of the most important cinematic efforts of the decade.
Though Twentieth Century Fox has been promoting the new release “Jack the Bear” as a fairly sweet drama that features some conflict, people who check it out are likely to be surprised by how dark it is. The film stars Danny DeVito as a well-meaning father trying to raise his two sons on his own. It is 1972 and the family has just moved to Oakland, California, where DeVito is the host of a late night horror movie show. DeVito uses martinis to help soothe the hurt of his wife’s recent death and has a tendency to be a little irresponsible, as when he oversleeps on his three year old son’s first day of preschool. For the most part, though, he tries to provide his sons with love and is like a playful child himself, engaging in silly games with the neighborhood children.
Director Marshall Herskovitz was one of the co-creators of “thirtysomething” and has a real skill with handling the smaller moments of the film, such as the way the entire neighborhood celebrates when the Oakland A’s win the World Series or the hesitant joy felt by the son entering his early teens after asking a cute schoolmate out on a date. It is these moments that the film comes to life through recognizable, honest glimpses of very real situations and emotions. But as the drama turns heavier and the characters begin to viciously quarrel with one another, the film quickly degenerates into an overblown bore. Many of the elements of the film are hopelessly out of place, such as the creepy neighbor who turns decidedly sinister by the end. He seems like a character that wanders into this film accidentally after being misplaced from a low-grade thriller.
The movie tries so hard to be an emotional tearjerker and gripping family drama that it eventually becomes annoying and wearying. It’s as if the makers of “Jack the Bear” were so convinced that they were creating something extraordinarily important that they were willing to bludgeon the audience into believing it as well.