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Jack the Bear takes child's view of dysfunctional family

Jack the Bear
Directed by Marshall Herskovitz.
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian based
upon the novel by Dan McCall.
Starring Danny DeVito,
Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., Miko Hughes,
and Gary Sinise.
Loews Cheri.

By Douglas D. Keller
Chairman

I liked Jack the Bear. This is a strange way for me to start a review but I must admit that normally I don't care for "feel good" movies. After all, I liked Bad Lieutenant and that movie had no good feelings in it. Maybe it was Danny DeVito as John Leary, a single parent raising his two sons Jack and Dylan, played by Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. and Miko Hughes. But I think the movie was a success for me because of the particular narrative viewpoint through which the story unfolds.

Single parents struggling to raise their children after the death of a spouse is nothing new. John Leary is no ordinary parent however; he works at the local television station emceeing a horror show la Elvira. At heart John is a kid, more comfortable playing "monster" with the neighborhood children than parenting. Instead of taking an adult viewpoint on the situation though, the screenplay written by Steven Zaillian and based upon the novel by Dan McCall speaks through the first person narrative of the oldest son Jack.

Twelve-year-old Jack is going through many traumas in adjusting to the hippie educational system of Oakland, Calif. (having recently moved from Syracuse, N.Y.), falling in love for the first time, and coming to terms with the death of his mother.

The neighborhood the Learys settle in is a bizarre microcosm of society. Next door lives 11-year-old Dexter who lives with his strung-out grandparents after his hippie parents abandoned him. Across the street are the Stricks, whose 21-year-old son Norman (Gary Sinise) partially crippled himself in a car accident. After recovering, Norman restored his car, placed it upon blocks, and continues to wash it everyday. Something is not quite right about Norman and the kids in the neighborhood make up wild stories about him. Norman befriends Dexter after his grandmother overdoses. Under his tutelage, Dexter is transformed into the image of a neo-Nazi, a chip off the Norman block. A barely explored area of the story is the different ways that Dexter and Jack cope with the loss of their mothers.

The Leary family appears to be falling apart: John begins drinking more and eventually loses his job when, in a drunken stupor, he makes a satirical political endorsement for a neo-Nazi candidate on his television show. The curse of bad luck begins to snowball as Norman's dog is poisoned and dies in the Learys' yard and the neighborhood is polarized. Jack is at a loss about how to save his family. Jack leaves Dylan under the watch of Dexter while he tries to come up with a solution. Dexter allows Norman to kidnap Dylan. After several days, Dylan is found abandoned in a wooded area left to die and Norman has disappeared without a trace. John's in-laws force him to relinquish custody of the children to them. Of course in the end John is able to right his life and get the boys back but I don't want to give away the twists and turns that lead to the tear-jerker ending.

DeVito's acting in this movie has won praise, but I think that the real praise should be aimed at Steinmiller, whose Jack is the central character in the movie and who acts as an emotional conduit for the events that take place. We see the neighborhood, the school, and John's childish antics through his eyes. He effectively portrays the range of emotions from the joy of a first love to utter heartbreak when his brother is kidnapped and he realizes that he is partially to blame. Without Steinmiller's skill in making Jack a three-dimensional character the movie would not be as effective.

Jack the Bear is a powerful and evocative film. Marshall Herskovitz, who directed several episodes of Thirtysomething, does a fine job in manipulating his subject matter for maximum emotional impact. Herskovitz combines the right amount of levity with his sometimes heavy subject matter to make a very entertaining film. And yes dear reader, Jack the Bear had even this hardened reviewer misty-eyed at times.