Relative Strangers

Director: Greg Glienna
Danny DeVito, Kathy Bates, Ron Livingston

Since I have managed to gain some fame being the proprietor of this web site, there is a pretty good chance that some of my readers may be wondering how they might gain some success of their own, whether it be Internet-related or not. Well, I don't have an easy answer to that question, though I can certainly list a few things I have learned over the years. For one thing, I've learned that gaining success is much easier if you have managed to build a great deal of smarts over the years; I got that way by reading hundreds of books of different subjects. Also, if you have a goal in mind, it is much easier if you have a lot of money to spend in order to get to that goal. (Though if you have all that money, you could already be considered a success!) But one of the key ways that success seems to depend on more often than not is, in my opinion, your family. Of course, support from your family members early in your life helps a lot when it comes to reaching success as an adult, but there are other ways - unusual ways - that family can influence you. For example, I once read an interesting statistic that stated that the more sisters a boy has, the less likely he will become a juvenile delinquent. That is not by far the only interesting way your family can influence you as to whether or not you'll succeed as an adult. No doubt you know that if a child has both parents in his life, he has a greater chance of achieving success. Also, if a baby's parents talk to their infant frequently, when the child gets older he or she will have a greater chance of being smart and well-behaved.

Certainly, as I have illustrated by those above example, your parents can do a lot to make sure you'll be a successful and well-adjusted adult. On the other hand, they can also place some pitfalls in your way. For example, I have come across several times the claim that successful adults for the most part were either their parents' only child, or were the oldest child. I have seen evidence for this... though on the other hand, I happen to be the youngest of my parents' children. As you can see from that example, there are situations a child may be placed in that can often make success harder to reach. One is being born handicapped, and other one - one I want to talk about - is being an adopted child. Now, I am pretty sure most people who were adopted have okay lives - one of my friends has an adopted brother, and from what I've seen, he has a happy life. But when you think about it, some problems can come up for someone who was adopted. The most obvious is realizing that you were given up by your natural parents who didn't want to keep you for some reason or another. You might as a result have a side to you that feels deep rejection, despite being accepted by your adoptive parents. The question that comes up is whether you would like to confront your birth parents when you are old enough. Personally, if I were in that situation, I would probably say "no". Knowing that most babies put up for adoption were not planned, and very often have parents who at the time had various weaknesses, I would not want to risk getting bad news from knowing where I exactly came from.

There is also the fact that if an adopted child were to suddenly reintroduce themselves to their long absent birth parents, it might upset the birth parents for various reasons. As you can see from what I just wrote, there are some heavy and serious things about adoption. But while adoption can Relative Strangersbe a serious topic, like just about any subject, a funny side can be seen to it as well. What if you found your adoptive parents and they turned out to be very, very different from you? That's the premise of the comedy Relative Strangers, and that premise alone got me interested. But there was additional interest from the behind the scenes going-ons. Danny DeVito not only starred in the movie, he thought enough of the project to also act as a producer with his film company Jersey Films, along with the Cannon Films of the twenty-first century, Millennium Films. Of course, all of those facts made the movie look very interesting to me, so I purchased the used copy I found at a pawn shop. Actor Ron Livingston (Office Space) plays the central character of the movie, a man named Richard Clayton. When the movie starts, Richard is riding high in life. He is a successful psychiatrist, and has just had a book published. In his home life, he has a loving father (Edward Hermann, The Paper Chase) and mother (Christine Baranski, The Ref), and he is engaged to a lovely young women named Ellen (Neve Campbell, Scream). He also has a brother named Mitch (Bob Odenkirk, The Brothers Solomon), and Mitch resents Richard's success, so much so that one day in a burst of anger, Mitch tells Richard he was adopted. After getting over the initial shock, Richard decides to search for his birth parents, and eventually he finds them, a married couple with the names of Frank (DeVito, Taxi) and Agnes (Bates, Misery). Richard soon finds out that Frank and Agnes are the worst sort of people, their being carnies being one of the better things about them. Frank and Agnes, however, thrilled to be reunited with their son, soon start to greatly interfere in his life. And bit by bit, Richard's career and various relationships start to suffer from his real parents butting in. Can Richard figure out what to do?

I have a strong feeling that some readers are asking themselves, "With a movie with that notable cast, how come I have never heard of it before?" Well, there is an answer to that question. You've probably haven't of the movie before because it was released straight to DVD. I knew that fact before watching the movie, and while it rang alarm bells in my mind, my curiosity was stronger. And after watching Relative Strangers, I can safely say that the long in the tooth proverb stating that curiosity killed the cat is very true indeed. It doesn't take very long to figure out why no theatrical distributor dared to touch the movie. The first problem that comes up is with the depiction of the movie's central protagonist, the Richard Clayton character. He is an unbelievably bland person. This is mostly due to the writing - or should I say lack of writing. Take the first few minutes of the movie, for example. We learn that Richard has a successful career in psychology, but we don't get to see him at work except for stating some quick advice on a radio talk show. He has a girlfriend, but you don't sense any strong feeling of love or devotion to her. When the news comes out that he was adopted, he shows some initial shock, but the movie fails to show how he deals with this news for the next few days. And when he eventually decides to track down his birth parents, we are never given an explanation as to why he has decided it's important to find them. Does he want a medical history? Does he want to know why he was abandoned at birth? No explanation is given. And as the movie progresses after those first few minutes, we learn precious little more about Richard. As a result, it's hard to feel one way or another about this guy. He's so colorless, we can't even find a reason to laugh at him once misfortune starts crossing his path. You'll just be sitting in your seat wondering why the movie thinks we should be interested in this fellow.

The lack of a strong personality to the Richard character in the script probably explains why actor Ron Livingston apparently couldn't generate much enthusiasm in the role. You get the feeling that he knows the ship is sinking and that any real effort would be for naught. For that matter, the supporting cast find it hard to do much with their weak characters as well. Neve Campbell does look pretty, but her eye candy doesn't compensate for the fact that it's hard to understand why her character is so much more accepting of Richard's natural parents than he is, even when it's clear that he is experiencing great stress and other negative emotions right in front of her. The character of Richard's brother Mitch isn't given much of a chance to explain his jealousy; he reveals to Richard that he was adopted less than a minute in his first scene. Richard's adoptive parents have too little time to become more than stereotypical rich snob stock characters. But probably the characters you are most interested in are the coarse Frank and Agnes, since they are played by the biggest stars in the cast, Danny DeVito and Kathy Bates. Well, the writing of the movie does pick up a little when these characters are in a scene, sometimes enough that a few (mild) chuckles are generated, such as a kind of amusing charades sequence midway through the movie. But for the most part, the kind of humor that comes from these characters is not very enticing. For example, it is revealed that the last name of Frank and Agnes is "Menure", and the movie subsequently beats to death the joke of their supposedly funny name.

As I sit here and think about it some more, I think the real problem with Relative Strangers' sense of humor is that it is too bland and too safe. While the movie got a PG-13 rating ("For sex-related humor and language", according to the MPAA), it feels more like a PG. Frank and Agnes do come across as a little crude, but not enough to convince the audience that they can unintentionally wreck the life of their son. They are not written to be wild and out of control enough, and therefore they are not terribly funny. This even extends to the performances of these characters. While DeVito and Bates give the best performances in the movie, at the same time you sense that they are considerably holding back. If John Belushi had still been alive when this movie was made, and he was cast as Frank, his manic energy and extremely crude tone would have put so much life into this movie, and compensated for many of the shortcomings of the screenplay co-written by director Greg Glienna. Though there would still be the problem of Glienna's direction.  It's not just how "soft" the entire movie feels for what should be a zingy and out of control comedy. For some reason, Glienna suddenly fades to black in the middle of a number of comic moments and cuts to the next scene before a proper punchline can be formed. Also, while the movie is set in Chicago and the surrounding area, it's painfully clear it was shot in southern California. (If you are shooting in California with somewhat limited resources, why not set your movie's story in California?) And while the movie doesn't look extremely cheap, it's obvious throughout that the budget wasn't particularly large, from the liberal use of stock footage to much of the movie being shot extremely close up. It doesn't take long to see why Relative Strangers never got released to theaters - what film distributor in their right mind would adopt such a lame movie to join the others in their cinematic family?

(Posted September 27, 2019)

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See also: The In-Laws, Lonely Hearts, Lovers And Other Strangers