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‘Unstrung Heroes’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1995

Diane Keaton's kooky sensibilities as a director are ideally suited to the sweet madness of "Unstrung Heroes," a sensitive coming-of-age story in the sublime tradition of "My Life as a Dog." The film, Keaton's second behind the camera, follows a 12-year-old boy's faltering, funny attempts to cope with his father's sudden emotional distance and his young mother's terminal illness.

Based on Franz Lidz's boyhood memoir, Richard LaGravenese's screenplay begins on the protagonist's birthday, which the family celebrates with strawberry pancakes. Steven (Nathan Watt) had wanted something normal—a bike, maybe—but his scientist father, Sid (John Turturro), gives him another of his oddball inventions. This time it's a mechanical tent-shaped canopy for his bed.

His mother, Selma (Andie MacDowell), sees her son's face fall and hugs away his disappointment—something she's obviously done a million times before. "Mom, is Dad from another planet?" he wants to know. "Your dad's a genius," answers Selma, whose trust in her goofy husband is absolute.

Sid, in turn, worships Selma, who is his link with his children and the rest of the real world. When she is stricken with cancer, the devastated Sid withdraws from his children, focusing all his energies on caring for—and perhaps even finding a cure for—his wife. Overwhelmed by fear and sorrow, Steven runs off to live with his eccentric uncles, Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin).

The charming but genuinely deranged brothers' wonderfully idiosyncratic lifestyles provide refuge from the false order of Steven's parents' beautiful home. Uncle Danny, a paranoid certain that there are only eight trustworthy people in the world, shares an apartment with Uncle Arthur, a childlike scavenger who packs the rooms with other people's discards: newspapers, wedding cake decorations and rubber balls.

His uncles help Steven regain his sense of self, rename him "Franz Lidz" and teach him how to hold on to memories. Uncle Arthur gives him a box for special things, which Steven fills with mementos of his mother: a lipstick, an empty Chanel bottle, a cigarette lighter. Selma finds it, of course, but the moment isn't maudlin or sappy. And neither is the movie, which counters pathos with the uncles' amusing antics. While the brothers suffer from mental illness, it's the cinematic sort that propels comedies like "Harvey" and "King of Hearts." LaGravenese, who employed similar tactics in "The Fisher King," considers madness a creative refuge from grief. Put the manic, schizzy Danny and the whimsical urban beachcomber Arthur together and you've basically got the Fisher King. But that's not to take anything away from the hilarious Richards or the delightful Chaykin.

"Unstrung Heroes," which features believable performances all around, finds MacDowell in her best role since "sex, lies, and videotape." It's almost as if she's undergoing the transformation from human to angel, as she grows paler and more beatific before her death. Keaton, who previously directed a quirky documentary called "Heaven," also renews her interest in spirituality. Like laughter and movie madness, faith proves so much more comforting than science.

Unstrung Heroes is rated PG.

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