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In 'Family Law,' it's like father,unlike son

Arturo Goetz (left) and Daniel Hendler in director Daniel Burman's "Family Law," the last in a trilogy of movies Burman has made about fathers and sons.

It's the young man's eternal dilemma: How can you be a good son when you're trying so hard to be an adult? How can you be a good dad when you still feel like a child?

The Argentine director Daniel Burman gently pokes these sore spots in "Family Law," a funny, rueful tale of a Buenos Aires yuppie caught between his father and fatherhood. It's a deceptively small film, one whose observations may continue to detonate quietly in your mind after the lights have come up.

Daniel Hendler plays Ariel Perelman, a handsome, uptight attorney who works for the justice department and teaches law; he keeps out of the courtroom mostly because his father, Bernardo (Arturo Goetz), is a legal legend in Buenos Aires's business district. Elegant and raffish, the old man knows which secretaries to butter up and which judges to schmooze; he never waits in line and always gets the best deal for his clients. Bernardo's one of life's born fixers, and he's so inimitable that his son doesn't even try.

Instead, Ariel (or "Perelman," as he refers to himself) maintains a businesslike demeanor that only fools himself. In the course of "Family Law," the hero woos and marries Sandra (Julieta Diaz), a tough-minded Pilates instructor, and becomes a father to little Gaston (played by the director's son, Eloy Burman). Life lays claim with all its shaggy delights, but Ariel refuses to give in. Some nights he even sleeps in his suit. After a while, his own child calls him "Perelman."

This is not a posture that can be held for long without cracking, and "Family Law" is at its best when noting the hairline fractures that slowly appear in its hero's psyche. The ancient building housing his office is condemned, forcing Ariel into a monthlong sabbatical he decides to keep secret from his wife. The holiday breaks his lockstep, forcing him to confront his feelings about his father, who's acting a little odd himself.

There's the stuff of real drama here, but Burman repeatedly pulls back, content to watch. At times, the movie seems as emotionally blocked as its main character, but then we'll meet Ariel's Uncle Eduardo (Jean Pierre Reguerraz), a much shadier attorney than his brother, or a scruffy little professional witness (Dmitry Rodnoy), and the film gets a lift. Among its other pleasures, "Family Law" is a tonic for those in the profession; it walks the walk and talks the legalese.

It also touches on the issue of ethnicity and its disappearance in modern culture. Ariel is Jewish, his wife isn't; Gaston attends a parochial school with a decidedly European flavor. "We're the typical Argentine Judeo-Christian married couple," wonders Ariel. "When did the Swiss enter our lives?"

"Family Law" is the last in a trilogy of movies Burman has made about fathers and sons; the other two are "Waiting for the Messiah" (2000) and "Lost Embrace" (2004), both starring Hendler as characters also named Ariel. It's very probable the new film looks stronger when seen in the light of the earlier works; on its own, it has the feeling of an elated but exhausted summation. The elation marks it as a young man's movie, in all the best ways. The exhaustion probably marks it as a young parent's.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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