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‘Jack the Bear’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 02, 1993

In "Jack the Bear," monster-movie TV host Danny DeVito introduces such horror classics as "The Wolfman" and "The Fly" with growling relish. He brings the shtick home too, playing monster for his two sons and the kids in the neighborhood. In this klutzy tearjerker, he's just one of many human beasts. Director Marshall Herskovitz takes this theme and tramps with it. You'd be wise to lift your feet or feel the crunch of poignance.

The year is 1972. DeVito and sons (12-year-old Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. and 3 1/2-year-old Miko Hughes) have just moved to Oakland, Calif., after the tragic death of DeVito's wife. But they've merely exchanged one demon for a whole set of monsters.

On their new street, everyone seems to have been recruited from Central Casting's Kooks & Psychos Department. Scowling neighbor Gary Sinise (John Malkovich's protective companion in "Of Mice and Men") mangled his leg in an auto accident. He shuffles menacingly around his yard with a walking stick, his car up on bricks.

Bespectacled and strange kid Justin Mosley Spink lives with his grandparents because his parents deserted him. Irascible neighbor Art LaFleur yells all day at his retarded son. In this Bay Area neighborhood, the folks rant, rave, glare or hobble.

"I didn't know yet what I was going to learn -- that monsters are real," says narrator Steinmiller.

You ain't seen nothing yet, Steinie. Wait till Halloween, when little Spink knocks on your door dressed like a Nazi -- costume courtesy of Sinise.

"Jack the Bear" isn't a tearjerker. It's a ball-and-chain jerker. Although DeVito puts emotional strength into his role, his heart-of-a-beast personality is a horse pill to swallow. He drinks too much. He bellows alarmingly at his wife's meddlesome parents. When he finds out Sinise is a card-carrying goose-stepper, he drunkenly denounces him on television -- embarrassing everyone. When Sinise takes further revenge, DeVito takes a baseball bat to Sinise's car. But his heart's in the right place.

Although similarly ankle-chained by bathos, Steinmiller is a likable personality. When he falls in love with classmate Reese Witherspoon, he stares into her eyes with gawky, touching rapture. But there's only so much to be done with this ineptly mounted drama.

As for contrived coincidence, this movie is engorged with it. After a separation -- in which those meddling grandparents (Stefan Gierasch and Erica Yohn) temporarily take away DeVito's kids -- Steinmiller decides to return to Dad. He happens to arrive on the same night that Sinise (who's been missing for some time) decides to creep into the house for his final revenge. This is also one of those movies that uses stale baby-boomer rock hits ("Gimme Some Lovin'," "Can't Find My Way Home," etc.) to comment on the story. It's more than enough to Bear.

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