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‘Breaking the Rules’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 10, 1992


Neal Israel
Jason Bateman;
C. Thomas Howell;
Jonathan Silverman;
Annie Potts;
Krista Tesreau
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Neil Israel's maudlin, hopelessly tired "Breaking the Rules" is an exercise in Iron John nostalgia. Its focus is the forever-amber friendship among three boyhood pals who grew up and away from one another since the old days in Cleveland when they dreamed of becoming singing stars together.

The friends haven't seen much of each other in recent years. Gene (C. Thomas Howell) moved to Chicago to make his mark, while Rob (Jonathan Silverman) has given up his music career to attend medical school. Ostensibly, the reason for their return to Cleveland is to attend the wedding of their friend Phil (Jason Bateman), who never left his home town and, though he made straight A's his last semester, abruptly dropped out of college. The other two members of the trio are worried about him, especially when they find out there's no fiancee and no wedding. Maybe it's drugs, they think. Later, though, when they get hammered together and start horsing around, his longhaired wig falls off, forcing him to confess that he has a rare form of leukemia and only weeks to live.

This revelation is less a surprise to us than to his friends. (That wig was pretty bad.) But it sets the stage for a van trip across the country intended to give Phil the chance to do some real living. And live full out he does.

Israel and screenwriter Paul Shapiro aren't exactly sharpshooters when it comes to bull's-eyeing their themes. Their point, apparently, is that through Phil's illness the guys reclaim their love for one another and, as a result, become centered and healed. That's what driving off the road together, picking up a waitress, going ice skating and other boy-bonding stuff will do for you. Who knew it was so easy?

There is a silver lining of sorts, though. That waitress they pick up (she takes a shine to Rob) is played by the sublime Annie Potts, who it seems has enough spirit and sexy vitality not only to heal the sick but to raise the dead as well. As Mary, Potts has the uncanny ability to transcend everything that's schmaltzy and substandard in the story. She's the ultimate Teflon actress -- nothing sticks to her. Mary is an up-for-anything free spirit, and her blithe insouciance is a tonic. By virtue of sheer charm, she almost saves the movie. But "Breaking the Rules" cannot be saved, even though Bateman is affecting as a young man facing his last days. His last scene with Potts is especially moving; like the death scene in "Longtime Companion" it gives us a jolt of real pathos. But it also demonstrates precisely what's been missing all along in the film. For a film about death, "Breaking the Rules" is surprisingly lacking in gravity. Perhaps the filmmakers were too afraid of delivering a downer -- but because of their fear, they trivialized their movie. As their message fades, only a memory of the fabulous Potts remains.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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