Sunday, September 30, 2012

Arrested Script Development: "House Arrest" (1996)

As happens often, a perfectly good story idea is twisted and ruined by many hands until it is released as a film that may not remotely resemble what the original writer intended. Usually, a sign of this many-hands-in-one-pot school of film making is a screenplay credit that reads like a batting roster. "House Arrest" is strange, in that only one person takes the writing credit, and the blame.

Grover (Kyle Howard) is a nice-guy junior high schooler who lives with little sister Stacy (Amy Sakasitz) and their parents, Janet (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Ned (Kevin Pollak). On the occasion of his parents' eighteenth wedding anniversary, the couple announces they are separating. Grover will have none of it, and after best friend Matt (Mooky Arizona) casually comments that Grover ought to lock Mom and Dad in a closet until they sort everything out, Grover decides imprisoning them in the basement is the next best thing.

Grover has thought of everything to prevent their escape, pouring cement in the window wells and nailing the only door shut. He lets slip his deed at school to Matt, who decides his oft-married father Vic (Wallace Shawn) and his stepmom Louise (Caroline Aaron) also need some locked-away therapy. Also overhearing the pair is bully T.J. (Russel Harper), whose jerk lawyer dad Donald (Christopher McDonald) is cheating on meek mom Gwenna (Sheila McCarthy). The duo bring their parents over (under the guise of a sociology class experiment) and lock them in the basement, too. Along with Matt's bratty younger brothers (Alex Seitz and Josh Wolford), the children now run wild in the household as the parents argue and try to escape from downstairs.

It's not a bad little idea. Turning the tables on the parents, and treating them like childish mental deficients, is funny. How many of us were grounded growing up, wishing the same on the parents? How would they like it? The kids use the parenting skills against the parents, yelling back at them and punishing them when they misbehave. Michael Hitchcock really touches on something here, but something is lost in the translation to the screen.

One problem is the other subplots, all of which are completely unnecessary. Jennifer Love Hewitt is Brooke, Grover's love interest who brings over her immature "cool" mom Cindy (Jennifer Tilly). That is one more kid and one more parent too many. Across the street from Grover's house, retired police chief Rocco (Ray Walston) watches, calling his old police force out whenever he sees something suspicious. Again, it doesn't fit and isn't funny. Throw in what can only be described as cameos by Ben Stein, Colleen Camp, and the director's wife Shelley Hack, and things take a down turn. I do not think Stein and Camp were supposed to be cameos, I suspect their screen time was sheared to the point that they ended up that way.

With the story, you expect either a smart suburban satire, like a cool "American Beauty"-lite, or bumbling dumbness with "Home Alone" falling-down shenanigans. With "House Arrest," you get both, and the serious and slapstick tones wrestle with each other for the entire movie. We make progress when Ned and Janet realize they take each other and their children for granted, only to later have Jamie Lee Curtis fall down a rat infested laundry chute and bounce off a tiny trampoline in slow motion.

The cast is okay. The kids are all very good, and Kyle Howard holds the film together. The parents are a little worse off; Wallace Shawn has played this exact same character before, as has Tilly. Christopher McDonald is usually the underrated gem in his work, but he is too over the top and mean here. The pacing is all fits and starts, and the running time is too long as this comes in at ten minutes short of two hours. Director Winer has done a lot of television work, which makes the meandering long plot curious.

My parents have been together for over forty years now, although two of us four siblings have been divorced (me included), so I know a bit about long and short marriages. "House Arrest" might have gone the high road, making a funny comment about the state of matrimony in middle America (the film is set in Defiance, Ohio), or could have taken the low road, full of bonking heads, smart-ass kids, and stupid adults. It goes for the middle territory, and so does my rating. (* * *) out of five stars.