A fascinating failure from director Rob Reiner and TV comedy producer-writer Alan Zweibel ("Saturday Might Live," "It's Garry Shandling's Show"), NORTH presents a child's picaresque fantasy in a movie that's not really for kids. Geared for nostalgic babyboomers, this mild comedy may
elicit chuckles from savvy TV buffs but will disappoint most audiences with its underdeveloped story. However, its intriguing subtext--an allegorical quest for Jewish identity--should delight viewers canny enough to detect it.
Eleven-year-old North (Elijah Wood) is the perfect kid, but his Dad (Jason Alexander) and Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ignore him. Seeking solace in his secret place, a comfy chair in a department store, North encounters a man in an Easter Bunny suit (narrator Bruce Willis), who advises him that he
can't choose his parents as a baseball free agent chooses a team. School newspaper editor Winchell (Mathew McCurley) smells a big story: North should declare himself a free agent and seek more appreciative parents. With the counsel of shyster Arthur Belt (Jon Lovitz), North sues his parents, who
have become literally comatose with guilt. Judge Buckle (Alan Arkin) gives him until noon on Labor Day to find new parents or return to his own; otherwise, the state will remand him to an orphanage. Offers pour in and North takes flight.
In Texas, North meets wealthy and extravagant Pa and Ma Tex (Dan Aykroyd, Reba McEntire) and their familiar-looking ranch hand Gabby (Willis). Upon learning that his prospective parents want to fatten him up to the awesome dimensions of their late son Buck, North flies on to Hawaii, where he
meets another pair of problematic parents--politicians who want to exploit his celebrity for public relations--and a new incarnation of the Bunny, now a beach bum. Meanwhile, power-mad Winchell and Belt are fomenting a children's rebellion. Angry kids terrorize their guilt-stricken parents while
North's folks, still frozen, are set up as a museum display.
In Alaska, North meets an Eskimo couple (Graham Greene, Kathy Bates), who seem nice enough until they float Grandpa (Abe Vigoda) off to sea on a block of ice. Visits to an Amish farming community, China, Zaire, and France, are equally unsatisfactory. He fares best in Bedford, a sunny suburb,
home of ideal parents Ward and Donna Nelson (John Ritter, Faith Ford). North's parents awaken, but Winchell spirits them away and re-edits their videotaped apology into a rejection. Shattered by the tape, North disappears into New York City.
Winchell sends Al (Robert Costanzo) to assassinate North, intending to make him a movement martyr. Dodging bullets in Central Park, North meets classmate Adam (Jussie Smollet), who gives him the unedited video. He heads for the airport, where he's confronted by an mob of angry kids; he then
manages to have himself air-expressed back home, where only a gloating Winchell awaits. His parents are at his secret place with Judge Buckle. Racing to meet his deadline, North arrives at the store and sprints to his parents as Al opens fire on him. North awakens in the comfy chair, relieved that
it was all a dream.
A child's search for alternative parents is a time-honored subtext of children's movies (MARY POPPINS, STAR WARS), but NORTH literalizes the theme without much depth or imagination. What makes NORTH interesting is its barely acknowledged but inescapable subtext--North's journey is a flight from,
and ultimate embrace of, his ethnic identity. Clues are seeded throughout: he's an overachieving Jewish kid from the suburbs with hard-working but constantly kvetching parents; borscht-belt ethnic shtick informs the performances of Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus, and Arkin; North is praised for his
portrayal of Tevye in a school production of "Fiddler on the Roof"; an Orthodox rabbi performs a ritual where North's father works; Belt sings the spiritual "Go Down Moses" ("Let my people go!") after the judge's ruling. Significantly, only the WASP-ish Nelson family is depicted without apparent
irony. Their Bedford is a 1950s sitcom version of Paradise--a profound temptation which North must reject.
Unfortunately, although Zweibel and Reiner have crafted a fascinating parable, they have failed to make a successful film. The various prospective parents are just caricatures and lack emotional resonance. There are few surprises other than the persistence of TV allusions: the theme from
"Dallas" plays as North approaches the Texas ranch and a subsequent production number is sung to the tune of the "Bonanza" theme; North and his would-be Alaskan Dad whistle the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show" as they go ice-fishing; and Judge Buckle points to "The Little Rascals" to underscore
the drawbacks of the orphanage option. None of this is very funny.
That NORTH remains a pleasant trifle is a testament to the professionalism of the cast and crew. The film is blessed by two fine juvenile performances. The beguilingly bug-eyed Elijah Wood elicits sympathy in a role that could have been insufferable, while Mathew McCurley is a delightfully
assured villain. There's an important film to be made about how TV has shaped our view of our families and ourselves but, sadly, NORTH is not that film.
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