MOVIE REVIEWS : Strong Cast Breaks Through Weak 'Rules'


"Breaking the Rules" (citywide), a shameless tear-jerker/comedy, finds three Midwestern buddies in their early 20s hitting the road to California. Rowdy, raucous and relentlessly calculated, the film is off-putting, yet it's possible to come away impressed by actors Jason Bateman, C. Thomas Howell and Jonathan Silverman.

Bateman's Phil has summoned his boyhood pals, who once thought they would grow up to rival the Beatles, back home to Shaker Heights, the upscale Cleveland suburb, ostensibly for his engagement celebration. After lots of heavy partying he finally admits that instead of a fiancee he's got "a mild case of death" from a vague but apparently virulent form of cancer. Bateman wants his friends to drop everything and accompany him on a cross-country trip to Hollywood so that he can fulfill his dream--of auditioning for "Jeopardy!"

Inescapably, Phil is indulging in emotional blackmail. It's already hard enough to enjoy the ensuing shenanigans on the road when you know that a big death scene is waiting at the end of the journey without having to be further put off by an awareness that Phil's friends would feel like rats if they didn't go along for the ride. Even if Silverman's Rob has gone to medical school only to please his father, he drops out all too quickly--and without Phil displaying any real sense of responsibility in urging such a serious decision upon his friend. Howell's Gene, who's gone to Chicago to seek his fortune in the business world, takes off with similar ease.

What about Phil's parents and their feelings about seeing off a son they may well never see again? Or Phil's feelings about them? As likable as Phil is clearly meant to be, he fundamentally thinks only of himself. In short, just about any other manner writer Phil Shapiro could have thought up to get the friends' journey under way would have been more effective.

Still, it's undeniable that Shapiro cares for these characters, and so do director Neal Israel and the actors. Luckily, there's a looseness to the film that allows Bateman, Howell--he's stuck with the least-developed character--and Silverman to fill the screen with their winning personalities. This is also the case with Annie Potts as a waitress/muralist they pick up along the way. She's the embodiment of the young male fantasy of the slightly older woman, maternal, sexy, free-spirited, unpossessive and available . She's a kooky dream figure yet Potts makes her real. Israel gives his actors the freedom and confidence to cut loose, but invariably they're brought down to earth by the sheer contrivance of "Breaking the Rules" (PG-13 language, some love-making; previously rated R for language.)

'Breaking the Rules'

Jason Bateman: Phil Stepler

C. Thomas Howell: Gene Michaels

Jonathan Silverman: Rob Konigsberg

Annie Potts: Mary Klingsmith

A Miramax Films presentation of an M.C.E.G. production. Producers Jonathan D. Krane, Kent Bateman. Executive producers Larry Thomson, Deborah J. Simon. Screenplay by Paul W. Shapiro. Cinematographer James Hayman. Editor Tom Walls. Costumes Giovanna Ottobe-Melton. Music David Kitay. Production design Donald Light-Harris. Sound Ed White. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (language, some love-making).

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