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Poignancy chaperones pleasure in Unstrung Heroes

In Unstrung Heroes two quirky uncles, played by Maury Chaykin and Michael Richards, comfort Nathan Watt, whose morther is terminally ill.

Unstrung Heroes

Directed by Diane Keaton.

Written by Richard LaGravenese; based on the book by Franz Lidz.

Starring Andie MacDowell, John Turturro, Michael Richards, Maury Chaykin, and Nathan Watt.

Sony Nickelodeon.

By Scott Deskin

Whenever the Hollywood moviemaking machine issues a trailer for a new film which proclaims a story that touches the heart or reaffirms the human spirit, I immediately have doubts. For every Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias, there are at least half a dozen prefabricated tearjerkers in release that feel more contrived than heartfelt. Contrary to a common Hollywood belief, good ensemble casts can't redeem poor scripts.

That said, one can appraise the latest entry in that genre, Unstrung Heroes, as an oddball coming-of-age picture that manages to tug at the heartstrings in its most sentimental moments. The story revolves around Steven Lidz (Nathan Watt), a 12-year-old kid growing up in a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood in the early 1960s. His father, Sid (John Turturro), is an inventor who gives his son birthday gifts like retractable bed tents that blossom from the ceiling and lectures on how science will be "the salvation of mankind." His mother, Selma (Andie MacDowell), is in many ways Sid's opposite: a beautiful and caring woman who supplies the love and tenderness to her children that Sid can't express.

When Selma falls ill with cancer, brought about by her incessant smoking, both Steven and his sister grow increasingly alienated from their father. Convinced that science can cure Selma's condition, he disputes doctors' first and second opinions with theories from medical journals; as a therapeutic measure, he sets up a device to bombard his wife with positive ions. But his wife eventually grows weary of trips to the hospital, and she confronts her husband by saying that science can't solve everything.

In the meantime, Steven moves in with his eccentric uncles, Arthur (Maury Chaykin) and Danny (Michael Richards, reprising much of his physical humor from Seinfeld). Arthur is a soft-spoken but unkempt soul who wraps gifts in toilet paper and collects toy balls from the city sewers; Danny is a paranoid communist who's convinced that the world is filled with Jew-hating McCarthyites out to get him. Between communing with his uncles at dinnertime and foiling his uncles' slovenly landlord, Steven re-establishes ties to his Jewish heritage that complement his father's intensely self-reliant (and atheistic) character. As opposed to the arrangement as Selma is, she relents to Steven's wishes to live with his uncles because it's on the condition, "until she gets better."

Unfortunately, Selma's condition is terminal, and like all good tearjerkers, we see the family struggling to deal with death and loss. And it's up to Steven to set his father straight about the importance of memories and tradition in a family that is held together solely by those qualities. Steven, who is renamed Franz by his doting uncles, has to balance all these problems with those he faces at school: in a school election for class president; dealing with unsympathetic teachers; and making friends at the expense of his own integrity.

At times, Unstrung Heroes plays like an extended version of the late TV sitcom The Wonder Years, only without the strained humor pathos - in this film it's genuine. Watt fills the role of the young Steven with appropriate innocence and frustration, and Turturro is very good as the equally befuddled, emotionally-stunted father. Richards nearly steals the film with his funny (and heartbreaking) portrait of the paranoid uncle, and it's true that he gets most of the good lines about fascist government conspiracies. But the ensemble holds together remarkably well. First-time feature director Diane Keaton has a good sense of chemistry between her actors, and the scenes are neither excessively maudlin nor overwrought. And Unstrung Heroes wins the title of a true "gem": As seen through the eyes of the central character, Steven, the world is a cruel and wonderful place, often at the same time.