Roommates

Friday March 3, 1995

     "Roommates" is a lot better than it has any right to be. A generational family saga spanning 32 years, 1963-1995, it works the audience over with shameless vigor. But it has an ornery core. As Rocky Holeczek, the Polish immigrant grandfather who ages from 75 to 107, Peter Falk keeps the crankiness going full blast. He doesn't turn into a softy, he keeps his dignity, and that helps us keep our dignity too. If you have to endure a sudser, you could do a lot worse than "Roommates."
     When Rocky's grandson Michael (D.B. Sweeney) is orphaned at age 5, the old baker takes the boy in. Thus begins an odd-couple confab that lasts for the rest of Rocky's long life. Little Michael becomes a physician, moves from Pittsburgh to Columbus, Ohio, to intern--and ends up rooming with his grandfather again. (A nice touch: Michael's insomnia is cured by the familiar comfort of Rocky's rattle-the-roof-beams snores.) Michael takes the couch, Rocky the water bed; upstairs a crew of Chinese students share the rent.
     Does all this sound like a premise for a sitcom? But wait, there's more. Michael falls for a beautiful, wealthy social worker, Beth (Julianne Moore), and tries to get something going under Rocky's disapproving glare. But the disapproval is conditional: Marriage and kids are followed by the loud thud of family tragedy and reconciliation.
     *
     Director Peter Yates and screenwriters Stephen Metcalfe and Max Apple (adapting his autobiographical book) are too smart to play up the hearts and flowers. But their downplaying isn't necessarily the best solution either. Sometimes we enjoy a sudser most for its sheer outrageousness. "Roommates" is trying to be classy without really altering its basic wash cycle. It presumes a smart audience but only meets it halfway. If it had gone all the way, if it had dived deeper, it might have been a stunner--like Paul Mazursky's "Harry and Tonto," which it superficially resembles.
     Still, "Roommates" is "square" in an appealing way. It stands up for family values, for true love, for the dignity of old age, for working-class ethics, for religion. It prides itself on how righteously unobjectionable it is. Rocky may be a handful but he's always right; he may dictate to people instead of talk to them, he may have a hard time telling his grandson he loves him, but his old immigrant's soul is meant to stand for everything we've lost sight of in this country. Grandfather Knows Best. His snoring is supposed to make us sleep better at night too.
     The reason all this goes down easy is because Falk, underneath all his old-man makeup, comes through with the real McCoy. He's not doing ancient codger shtick here. There are moments in his performance, when he's playing with his grandchildren (who adore him) or dancing the polka at Michael's wedding, where we can see Rocky's entire life in miniature. He's the kind of coot who is fixated on his own staying power: At 100 he procures a job for himself as a baker in a yuppie food emporium. Rocky sees no reason to slow down. Slowing down isn't how he got to be 100. And perhaps we can accept all this rah-rah righteousness in "Roommates" because we want to believe in people like Rocky--or at least in their myth.
     D.B. Sweeney is personable but a little wan as Michael, but Julianne Moore is terrific. She often is: most recently in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and, last year, as Yelena in "Vanya on 42nd Street." (It was one of the three or four best performances of 1994.) Moore is poised for a great career, and it would be a major loss to movies if she loitered on screen playing conventional wifely roles.
     Except that Moore doesn't do anything conventionally. In "Roommates," she creates a character, Beth, who insinuates herself sympathetically into everybody else's troubles. She has a way of being pouty yet sweet, and she's more than a match for Rocky. (It turns out that she plays poker even slower than he does.) When Beth is with her hoity-toity mother (well-played by Ellen Burstyn) you can see both what she is rebelling against and what she is embracing.
     "Roommates" is a perplexing movie because the moments of phony-baloney emotion are mixed right in with the genuine. The sifting is sometimes a chore, but it's worth it.


Roommates, 1995. PG, for thematic elements, some sensuality and language. A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of an Interscope Communications/Polygram Filmed Entertainment production in association with Nomura Babcock & Brown. Director Peter Yates. Producers Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Robert W. Cort. Executive producers Adam Leipzig, Ira Halberstadt. Screenplay by Max Apple, Stephen Metcalfe. Cinematographer Mike Southon. Editor John Tintori. Costumes Linda Donahue. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Dan Bishop. Set decorator Dianna Freas. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Peter Falk as Rocky Holeczek. D.B. Sweeney as Michael Holeczek. Julianne Moore as Beth. Jan Rubes as Bolek Krupa.

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