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Reiser doesn't do the right 'Thing'

Actor-comedian Paul Reiser has mostly kept a low profile since ''Mad About You," his Emmy-winning NBC comedy with Helen Hunt, went off the air in 1999, having overstayed its welcome after seven seasons.

''The Thing About My Folks" plays like a Very Special Episode of the long-running sitcom, grinding along for a grating 96 minutes. It's the flabby story of a father and son who heal their prickly relationship during a road trip they embark on, well, merely to heal their prickly relationship.

Reiser, who wrote the script, plays Ben, a neurotic and perpetually flustered New York writer, who is also a married father of two. (Every character Reiser plays is neurotic and perpetually flustered.) One night, his father, Sam (the usually reliable Peter Falk in extreme overacting mode) arrives unexpectedly at his door and eventually reveals that his wife of 47 years, Muriel (Olympia Dukakis, unseen until the late innings), has left him. Little wonder -- Sam is an abrasive, gas-passing boor who has always taken his long-suffering wife for granted. ''She just had enough," Sam says, and soon the audience will understand exactly how Muriel feels.

For reasons too pointless to explain, Ben and Sam wind up on the road to discovery, a favorite destination for fathers and sons in the movies. It's as if the dissolution of his parents' marriage is simply a setup for Ben getting to know Sam better. (The journey takes place in a gorgeous 1936 convertible Ford Deluxe, easily the best thing in the film.) The road map, more or less, is a decades-old letter Ben shares with his father. It was written, but never given, to Sam by Muriel, who details all the reasons why, even then, she wanted to leave her inattentive husband.

As Sam denies he's a creep, he and his son set off on various rote adventures -- a fishing trip, a minor-league baseball game, tequila shots with women with fake blond hair and ample cleavage, and a pool game that ends with Sam beating up some young loudmouth. Meanwhile, the task of tracking down on-the-lam Mom is left to Ben's wife, Rachel (a wasted Elizabeth Perkins), and his trio of squabbling sisters.

Along the way, Reiser, who still believes third-rate shtick passes for sophisticated comedy, never troubles himself with a single unpredictable moment. Son discovers he's more like Dad than he initially realized, Dad proves he's really a big old softie, though frankly, he's an absolute pest. And let's not forget the inevitable catastrophic disease and/or death plotline calmly awaiting its cue off-camera.

Blandly directed by Raymond De Felitta, ''The Thing About My Folks" means well. It's a family comedy-drama that wants to pluck the heartstrings but keeps getting tangled in its own tinny sentiment. Flat and forgettable, it's a tiresome film barely held together by its plinky piano score, sophomoric flatulence jokes, and cloying greeting-card emotions.

Renee Graham can be reached at

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