Beat the Parents

Travolta's performance can't overcome the horror of this evil-stepfather cliché.

Travolta's fine as Frank. Frankly, the problem is the rest of the movie.
Travolta's fine as Frank. Frankly, the problem is the rest of the movie.
In Domestic Disturbance, John Travolta provides a rare recent performance worthy of his fame, and it arrives bereft of laughable facial hair, flaccid special effects, and overwrought speechifying that too often renders him paunchy parody. As Frank Morrison, a builder of expensive wooden ships at a time when they've been replaced by cheaper plastic models, Travolta seems lost within himself -- trapped somewhere beneath the ticks and twitches of regret. He likes to think of himself as a "noble failure," a man who carried on the family business only to crash it on the Maryland shores and smash it to bits, despite his best intentions and efforts. Frank figures he has failed not only himself, but his dead father and grandfather and great-grandfather, who also were shipbuilders; he thinks of himself not as an anachronism, not as merely obsolete, but as absolute, total disappointment, also manifested by the end of his marriage, which dissolved in the bottom of a bottle. He need say nothing to communicate his pain; Travolta carries it in his sulking frame and in blue eyes as watery as the ocean never too far from sight.

If Travolta has spent too much of his post-Pulp Fiction career playing larger-than-life figures -- ultra-thugs and presidents, alien warlords and self-righteous do-gooders -- Domestic Disturbance offers him the opportunity to scale it down; Frank is smaller than life, one of those guys whose potential long ago turned into an ash heap of regret. Not in years has he played someone so sympathetic; Frank's flaws only make him more genial, more recognizable, more like us. But Travolta is stuck giving a remarkable performance in a film so trivial and offensive, its mere existence is as loathsome as it is laughable. Travolta, then, is the pitcher throwing a no-hitter into the ninth, who loses the game in extra innings; it'd be sad, if it weren't so infuriating.

At 88 minutes, Domestic Disturbance is less a film than a summary of one; it hurries through its story, proffering scenes that last mere seconds, as though ashamed of the tale it's telling. For a little while, it's sober, meaty stuff: A boy resists his mother's desire to move on with her life with a new man and a new baby. Frank's ex-wife, Susan (Meet the Parents' Teri Polo), is about to marry local businessman-of-the-year Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), to the chagrin of Frank and Susan's 12-year-old son, Danny (Matthew O'Leary). Danny longs for his folks to reunite, to the point of getting in trouble with the cops just to force them to be in the same room; he believes the duties of parenting will bond them once more. He also takes Rick for a creep, if only because, with his five-o'clock shadow at 10 a.m. and Samsonites beneath his eyes, Vaughn looks the part; he's the devil in J. Crew's clothing, a dull cliché. That Susan doesn't see it makes her as despicable as Rick; she sees what she wants: Rick's fat wallet, their picket-fence house, their picket-fence life. She keeps custody of Danny only so Frank can't.

But major studios aren't so interested in the mundane heartbreak and pain of the everyday; this isn't titled Domestic Drama. And so the movie quickly devolves into soggy pulp: Rick kills a man (Steve Buscemi) who was once his partner in crime, Danny bears witness, no one save Frank believes him, and for that the boy must suffer Rick's threats and ultimately violence at the hands of his stepfather -- all in the name of rousing entertainment. By film's end, what's meant to be frightening -- the sight of an adult beating a child's head, repeatedly, against the side of a car -- is merely appalling, a cheap trick without point or purpose, other than to provide the movie with a dreary climax. Despite its brevity, the movie repeats itself so often, it feels caught in a loop, hoping to build suspense out of reiteration. Time and again, Rick corners the kid in his room, suffocating him with a hand or silencing him with a stare. But the effect is startling only because of how empty the fear begins to feel and how cynical the whole endeavor plays; it puts a child in jeopardy just because it can.

The stepfather is hardly a new villain: In 1987, Terry O'Quinn epitomized bland, horrific evil lurking behind manicured hedges and suburban shadows; director Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather was as subtle as it was brutal, a horror picture as metaphor for how a child perceives a new "father" as nothing less than a dangerous intruder. It was Norman Rockwell as rendered by Hitchcock. Directed by Harold Becker, whose entire oeuvre consists of roller-coaster cars missing a wheel (Sea of Love, Malice), and written by Lewis Colick (Bulletproof), Domestic Disturbance pretends it's the same kind of old-fashioned thriller -- a Dial M for Murder, as Travolta kept reminding during an interview last week. But it's a sterile, hollow thriller, bereft of any emotion -- the cinematic equivalent of a math problem, which doesn't make it any less contemptible.