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‘This Boy’s Life’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 23, 1993

In "This Boy's Life," set in the late 1950s, divorced mother Ellen Barkin believes she has found the solution to her capricious wanderings. Mechanic Robert De Niro is charming, if unsophisticated. He brings her flowers, blows kisses and refers to her coffee as "java." His houseful of children from a previous marriage and his unpretentious consistency offer unprecedented security. And just maybe he'll put new order into her unruly son Leonardo DiCaprio's life.

DiCaprio, an aspiring delinquent obsessed with girls, cigarettes and rockabilly, doesn't trust the oddball suitor from Concrete, Wash. He even lampoons De Niro's old-time ways. His skepticism is temporarily reversed when De Niro promises to take him on a turkey shoot. But when it turns out the shoot has age restrictions, it's just the beginning of multiple letdowns. Barkin marries De Niro, mother and son move to the new home, and an extended father-son battle begins.

De Niro is torn from the pages of the scouting handbook and Reader's Digest, with a Gary Larsonesque twist. He hates Democrats and homosexuals. In his eyes, the fist is mightier than the pen; and he's full of such expressions as "shut your piehole." To him, DiCaprio is a lily-livered wimp who needs toughening. Barkin, who receives her own share of abuse from De Niro, refuses to acknowledge her mistake and defers meekly to her new husband. DiCaprio is mired in Concrete with a small-town dictator.

"This Boy's Life," based on Tobias Wolff's 1989 autobiography, has its moments. But it never attains full dimension. It pursues the De Niro-DiCaprio war so singlemindedly, everything else is left high and dry.

After Barkin marries De Niro, her job in this movie (except for the film's climactic developments) is essentially over. De Niro's three children hover sullenly -- almost irrelevantly -- in the background. DiCaprio strikes up a friendship with apparently homosexual classmate Jonah Blechman but the relationship never comes to De Niro's anti-gay attention. In dramatic terms, the confrontation is a missed opportunity.

Apparently left by director Michael Caton-Jones to his own devices, De Niro's familiar, tight-lipped intensity is entertaining and watchable. But in this Boy's Life Magazine context, it hovers close to cartoonlike. At first he taunts DiCaprio for reading books, listening to music and demanding sneakers. During basketball games, DiCaprio spends his time slithering across gym floors in leather brogues. By the end of the movie, however, De Niro has evolved into a Hollywood '90s villain -- the stepfather from hell.

"This is my house," he thunders, when DiCaprio has left the toothpaste tube uncapped. "I get to say about the toothpaste!" He gets increasingly psychotic until it becomes time for a wooden stake -- or a "Wizard of Oz"-like bucket of water. But as a boy struggling to get out of an untenable situation -- at a clumsy, powerless age -- DiCaprio is assured and believable. Perhaps the real reason he wants to get out of town is to find real people.

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