Now, successful family enterprises in the third generation are the exception rather than the rule, but the McMullens are an exceptional family. The business that Jessie McMullen founded in 1947 was the thieving trade (low overhead, high risk, higher yield), and Vito joined early on. Vito's earliest
memories are of his numbers-running Pop hiding bookie slips in his stroller. That's how Vito learned to count.
After a small setback (a prison sentence), Vito rejected the family business of blue-collar crime and opted for a legit enterprise (meat-packing). But Vito continued to practice white-collar crime on the side: tax evasion, to
Jessie's mind the last refuge of the scoundrel. For Jessie, to be legitimately illegit is fundamentally more sincere than Vito's dishonest honesty. Honor among thieves and all that.
Jessie argues his case so persuasively, it never occurs to you that this is a cliche.
Their basic father/son conflict is compounded when Adam, an MIT science nerd, drops out of grad school and wants to join Jessie's family business, creating friction between himself and Vito. In Vincent Patrick's (The Pope of Greenwich Village) colorful screenplay, Vito worries that Adam has inherited his grandfather's "criminal genes."
The wittiest of the screenplay's many deadpan twists is that Grandpa, Sonny and Grandsonny team up for a caper to steal DNA gene-splicing secrets from a bio-engineering laboratory. As it turns out, microbiology is destiny.
Directed with unusual relish by Sidney Lumet, Family Business is intimate- scaled drollery with performances to match. This is the first instance since his underappreciated role in Straight Time (1978) that Dustin Hoffman has played a character as small as life, and here, he is a generous ensemble player - a welcome change for the actor typically stingy about sharing time with co-stars.
Connery is self-effacing charm as Jessie, whose larcenous vigor makes his son react with moral fatigue. Connery invests a routine scene with unexpected tenderness when his Jessie adjusts Vito's stocking mask with some difficulty and fondly remembers, "This is why I used to hate putting on your snowsuit."
Matthew Broderick, surprisingly, is the movie's revelation. Although his character is underwritten as compared to the quotable dialogue given Jessie and Vito, Broderick is such a thoughtful reactor that he gives Adam more dimension than he might otherwise have had. It's not explicitly in the script, but Broderick's Adam implicitly is a scholar and a thief, one who uses his education as a foundation for carrying on the family tradition.
Family Business is a sly satire of the American dream that every generation be more successful than the previous.
Lumet, a lively chronicler of New York's diversity, has made his best film since The Verdict and his most seriously funny film since Dog Day Afternoon. Helped by Andrzej Bartkowiak, the Caravaggio of cameramen, Lumet is the only filmmaker whose movies make Manhattan look as motley and feel as jangly as it really is. From the Kelly greens and musical airs in Irish bars to the dingy reds and diabolical schemes in Hell's Kitchen to the pale beiges and bloodless roasts of the East Side, his movie is alive and kicking.
The ritualistic will appreciate that Family Business may possibly be the only movie to prominently feature Scottish thrift, a Sicilian vendetta, a Passover Seder and an Irish wake, all within its first half hour.
FAMILY BUSINESS * * * 1/2
Produced by Lawrence Gordon; directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Vincent Patrick, based upon his novel; photography by Andrzej Bartkowiak; music by Cy Coleman; distributed by Tri-Star Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Jessie McMullen - Sean Connery
Vito McMullen - Dustin Hoffman
Adam McMullen - Matthew Broderick
Elaine - Rosana DeSoto
Margie - Janet Carroll
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, mature themes)
Showing at: area theaters.