The cynical of heart may require an emergency schmaltzectomy immediately after seeing The Thing About My Folks, a sappy comedy-drama about fathers, sons, and the hackneyed shtick that unites them. Equal parts stand-up, sentimentality, and sitcom sugar, the film gives viewers a double dose of the decidedly TV-sized appeal of writer-star Paul Reiser, in his usual role as a whiny, self-absorbed upscale professional. After his orderly life is thrown into chaos when his longsuffering mother (Olympia Dukakis) finally leaves his father (Peter Falk) after decades of marriage, Reiser stumbles on a never-delivered letter Dukakis wrote to Falk delineating her unhappiness, and he uses a road trip in a vintage automobile with his loveable old man as an opportunity to confront Falk about his failings as a benignly neglectful father and husband. But what begins with acrimony, anger, and lots of tense arguments ends with bonding and cutesy road-movie shenanigans, as Reiser and Falk get caught up in baseball games, bar fights, hustling pool, flirting with a mother-daughter team, and other heartwarming endeavors affording seasoned ham Falk ample opportunity to devour lots of lovely scenery.
For much of its duration, Folks at least seems to seriously address Dukakis' late-period frustration at lingering in Falk's shadow, and this vaguely feminist undercurrent of post-menopausal resentment gives the film a queasy tension that qualifies as its only genuine, convincing emotion. Then Dukakis finally appears late in the film as a deus ex machina of unconditional motherly love, doling out hugs and forgiveness, and smothering any lingering bad feelings in her warm embrace. Otherwise, the film feels like a weird sort of cinematic John Cassavetes fantasy camp for Reiser. Kvetch within spitting distance of a genuine acting legend! Whine your way through countless scenes opposite one of Cassavetes' favorite thespians! Ultimately, however, Folks proves you can take a comedian out of a heartwarming sitcom, but you can't take the heartwarming sitcom out of a comedian. The Thing About My Folks flirts bravely, though gratingly, with messy, complicated emotions before ultimately drowning them in a warm bath of sticky sentimentality.