MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Family Prayers’: Helping This Gambler Is a Losing Effort


“Family Prayers,” set in Los Angeles in the 1960s, tries to get inside a 13-year-old boy’s day-to-day struggle to save his father from his gambling addiction.

Andrew (Tzvi Ratner-Stauber) isn’t a take-charge kid, but he has plucky determination. He hangs around while his dad (Joe Mantegna) is gambling with garment center co-workers or placing bets on the phone, and the look on the boy’s face is politely accusatory. Andrew is trying to be his father’s conscience, but he doesn’t realize that the man is too far gone to be helped.

For a movie with so much potential drama, “Family Prayers” (selected theaters) is too wan and plodding. The script by Steven Ginsberg has some good ideas: It’s a movie about a boy who tries to save his family in order to save himself.

Ginsberg has an even-handed, noncoercive approach to character; there are no villains in this tragedy. But director Scott Rosenfelt doesn’t have the skills--this is his first feature--to draw much emotional texture from these everyday lives. (If he did, the lives wouldn’t seem so everyday.) There’s too much glum virtuousness on display in “Family Prayers” (rated PG). Everybody seems touched by how sufferingly decent they are. It’s humane all right, but it’s boring.


Mantegna gives a reasonably involving performance; he doesn’t try to turn this gig into Willy Loman, though the script sometimes pushes him in that direction. But we never see the crazy compulsiveness that would compel a man who loves his family to place them in such jeopardy. (A couple of goons trail him periodically and trash his home, but shouldn’t a movie about a gambler carry more of a sense of risk?)

The other performances, with two exceptions, are unmemorable. Ratner-Stauber lacks charge and inner tension. Anne Archer is the suffering wife, a role she has played at least thrice too often. Paul Reiser, as the hippie who tutors Andrew for his bar mitzvah, is cloyingly avuncular.

But Allen Garfield has a few all-too-brief moments as a cantor that ring true, and Patti LuPone, as the boy’s aunt, injects some real, razzing energy into all the plodding sorrowfulness. If she was the gambler in the family, she’d be all aces.

‘Family Prayers’

Joe Mantegna: Martin Jacobs

Tzvi Ratner-Stauber: Andrew

Patti LuPone: Aunt Nan

Julianne Michelle: Fay Jacobs


An Arrow Entertainment presentation. Director Scott Rosenfelt. Producers Mark Levinson and Bonnie Sugar. Executive producer Larry Sugar. Screenplay by Steven Ginsberg. Cinematographer Jeff Jur. Editor Susan R. Crutcher. Costumes Johnny Foam. Music Steve Tyrell. Production design Chester Kaczenski. Art director Marc Dabe. Set decorator Judi Sandin. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.