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Better Living

Not Rated, 97 minutes
Starring Olympia Dukakis, Roy Scheider, Edward Herrmann
Based on the play by George F. Walker
Written and Directed by Max Mayer

IN SHORT: See it for the performances 'cuz the overall script is weak

Long term readers of this site know how, sometimes, we'll give a bad effects flick a passable rating because the effects should be seen on a big screen. Sometimes indie dramas have such good characters and character interplay that huge questions set up by gaps in the story need to be similarly overlooked. That's the case with Better Living, adapted from a stage play whose characters are so eccentric and/or broadly played that it may have been a scream, meaning funny, on stage (wherever it played). It's just a gut feeling of mine since we don't compare to source material, the play by George F. Walker.

Set in a blue-collar neighborhood in Yonkers New York, Better Living is the tale of Nora (Olympia Dukakis) and her three daughters, Elizabeth, Maryann and Gail. Central to all their lives is Nora's husband Tom (Roy Scheider) who vanished from their lives fifteen years earlier. All three daughters have father problems. Nora blithely drops stories of her hubbie's death five years earlier, which is all news to everyone. Nora, you see, lives in a mental world of her own. When first seen, she's down in the basement of the house, jackhammer in hand, burrowing out a new basement so that all the babies her daughters will eventually have will have a place to play. Throwing a crimp into her panoramic denial is brother Jack (Edward Herrmann), a priest who is losing his faith. Jack tells Nora that he's had a phone call from the long missing Tom, who is on his way back to Yonkers.

Which is a problem because fifteen years earlier, Jack and Nora had "done their very best" to kill the man. That's a very tantalizing bit of dialog, isn't it? Too bad that it's never mentioned again for the rest of the movie's running time. Nora returns to the basement and her fantasy of a dead husband. Jack hides in his confessional booth, flask in hand. The three daughters await the return of the prodigal. All bear their own emotional baggage . . .

The youngest, Gail (Wendy Hoopes) doesn't remember the daddy who disappeared when she was five. Her days are spent trying to get boyfriend "junior" (James Villemaire) on the straight and narrow -- his dad was a burglar -- with a heavy duty regimen of career guidance and copulation. Maryann (Catherine Corpeny), the middle daughter is the emotional wreck of the family prone to weeping and leaning on older sister Elizabeth (Deborah Hedwall) a hard-edged public defender old enough to intensely detest the missing pop. Each character has enough background to work with that, once dad walks in the door, things start popping enough to drive the movie through its second act.

Tom has other ideas. A 20 year police vet his worldview has been tainted by nonstop exposure to poverty and the violence that goes along with it. His return is intended to help protect his family from what he sees as an inevitable uprising of the poor and starving. To this end, he takes what's left of his emotionally crippled family, those that will talk to him, and turns the homestead into a fortress. Not the kind of survivalist outpost fortified like an armory, but imbued with a survivalist spirit nonetheless.

The strength in independent movies like this one are the performances of the actors. Dukakis and Hedwall's work stands out on that count. The script drops more than a few intriguing ideas, like the one mentioned above, and never follows up. The ending is fit for post flick discussions as to what it all really means.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Better Living, he would have paid...


pay per view level. If you frequent the arthouse circuit, there's more than enough depth here to keep you interested, despite a script that is little better than a tease.

amazon com link Click to buy films by Olympia Dukakis
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