Domestic Disturbance

Reviewed by Jean Oppenheimer

Dir: Harold Becker. US 2001. 91mins

If Domestic Disturbance is indicative of the current state of Hollywood thrillers, then the genre is suffering from a bad case of fatigue. Coming on the heels of Swordfish and Battlefield Earth, John Travolta appears to be in a bit of a slump himself. Actually, the actor is the best thing about this disappointing suspense drama. Based on his name value and appeal the film should do reasonably well its first couple of weekends, before sinking into oblivion due to poor word of mouth and a handful of new and more interesting releases.

Travolta plays Frank Morrison, a boat builder and unpretentious nice guy living along the Maryland coast. Frank remains on good terms with his ex-wife Susan (Teri Polo), mainly for the sake of their 12-year old son Danny (Matt O'Leary), an angry, rebellious kid who began acting up when his parents separated. Although Danny and his father are close, the boy has been in constant trouble with the law and has acquired a reputation with the police - and with his parents - for lying. He becomes even harder to handle when his mother decides to marry her boyfriend, Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn).

A wealthy businessman who suddenly appeared in town two years ago, Barnes seems to be liked and admired by everybody in town except his new stepson. Susan and Frank try to cut Danny some slack, aware that his behavioural problems stem from anger and confusion over all the changes in his life. But when Danny claims to have seen Rick kill a man and dispose of his body, even they lose faith - until Frank begins to suspect that his son may be telling the truth after all.

Lewis Colick's script is strictly by the book, containing absolutely no plot surprises: far more damaging, it fails to create any escalating sense of tension or suspense. From the start it is clear that Barnes has something to hide and is the designated villain of the piece (along with a second seedy character, played by Steve Buscemi). Making Barnes unambiguously untrustworthy is a viable plot choice, but then something else has to raise the anxiety level and supply a sense of jeopardy. Regrettably, nothing does.

Despite numerous scenes of Barnes threatening Danny, the viewer never seriously worries about the boy's safety (perhaps the film's PG-13 rating tied the filmmaker' hands). The 1987 restricted-certificate thriller The Stepfather, a film Domestic Disturbance loosely recalls due to its subject matter, left no audiences in no doubt that the newest member of the family meant business. Granted, Barnes is not sociopathic, merely criminal, but partially due to script weaknesses - and partially to Vaughn's tepid performance - we never sense his rising panic as his carefully constructed life begins to split apart at the seams.

Vaughn, whose performances vary wildly from film to film (he was good in The Cell, embarrassingly bad in South Of Heaven, West Of Hell), here seems to be giving a reading of a script rather than a performance. There is a physical stiffness about him; he is acting with his voice but not his body. Polo is a blandly generic mom who, like all the other characters, seems to have been slotted in to fill a specific, thriller genre function, and matters are not helped by the total lack of chemistry between her and Vaughn.

Travolta will not win any acting awards for this film, but he manages to imbue his character with his tried and true formula of relaxed, uncomplicated sweetness and seems genuinely concerned about his son's safety. His rapport with young O'Leary is believable, even when the audience does not accept the movie's take on Danny as the little boy who cried wolf. It is difficult to believe that this skinny kid has a mean or mendacious bone in his body.

Although the story unfolds at a healthy pace, the movie feels sluggish - not a good sign when a film runs to a mere 91 minutes. Many thrillers err by dragging out the last act: Domestic Disturbance has the opposite problem in that it is over almost before you know it.

Technical credits are adequate without being in any way exceptional: Mark Mancina's music is the weakest link and joins a growing list of recent scores from - From Hell, The Last Castle and Life As A House - which forego any pretence of subtlety and, instead, bang the audience over the head with a baseball bat. Writing and acting, not music, should carry a scene - and a film.

Prod co De Line Pictures, Jonathan D. Krane Production

US distParamount Pictures

Prod Donald De Line, Jonathan D. Krane

Scr Lewis Colick

CinematographyMichael Seresin

Pro des Clay A Griffith

Ed Peter Honess

Music Mark Mancina

Main castJohn Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo, Steve Buscemi, Matthew O Leary