Shed a tear for "North." Not for the 11-year-old boy it's named after, who thinks he has problems and doesn't, but for the movie itself, which is in more trouble than it knows.
Besides being disappointing, which it certainly is, "North" is baffling, a cause for sadness rather than anger. How could director Rob Reiner, whose touch for what pleases a mass audience is usually unfailing, have strayed this far? And how could anyone else have concluded that this languid fable about a boy who decides he needs a new set of parents was a film worth making?
Obviously Reiner's impressive commercial track record ("Stand by Me," "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," "A Few Good Men") caused everyone from actors to executives to shrug and sign off on a project so lacking in sparkle that no one with less power would have had a chance of getting it made.
As for why the director himself wanted to be involved, the press material carefully stipulates that the "North" story line "echoed Reiner's own maturation process." So, like Barry Levinson and the equally ill-starred "Toys," the director couldn't get this project off his mind for a decade, biding his time until he had the clout to get it done.
Based on a novel by Alan Zweibel, who co-wrote the lackluster script with Andrew Scheinman, the film focuses on a fourth-grader who seems to have an enviable life. North (Elijah Wood) is a scholar, an athlete and a role model, but when he sits down at the dinner table, he can't seem to get his folks' attention.
Given the difficulties children today have to face up to, living with a pair of comically self-absorbed parents (played by "Seinfeld" regulars Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) may not seem unduly traumatic. But in the uncertain tradition of previous "liberate the inner child" movies, North's situation is treated as a candidate for the trials of Job.
Under the influence of a wily fellow fourth-grader (Mathew McCurley) and an unscrupulous adult lawyer (Jon Lovitz), North decides enough is enough and declares himself a free agent, intent on scouring the world for parents worthy of his exceptional gifts. After all, as his tireless guardian angel (Bruce Willis) tells him, "Parents are supposed to make kids feel better, not the other way around."
Questionable as all this may be as a premise, it's not really what sinks "North." Rather it is how incompletely imagined the alternative parenting scenarios we're presented with turn out to be.
First up are Texans Pa and Ma Tex (Dan Aykroyd and singer Reba McEntire), wealthy folk who like the biggest and the best of everything. Next comes a completely inexplicable interlude with parental wanna-bes in Hawaii, another in Alaska, and increasingly shorter ones in China, Paris, Zaire and assorted other spots.
There are a few amusing moments in "North," mainly involving jokey references to other movies, but they are overshadowed by a dubious plot turn involving a full-scale revolt of America's children inspired by North's antics.
The problem overall is not so much that the humor, especially in the parent-tryout situations, is forced, but that it simply is not there at all. So little is going on in this mildest of fantasies that it is hard to even guess what kinds of emotional effects were aimed at in the first place.
So when Bruce Willis turns to game but overmatched Elijah Wood near the finale and tells the boy, "You've realized something it takes most people a lifetime to figure out," it is hard to resist yelling something like, "Be more careful next time," at the screen. It's a lesson everyone involved in "North" ought to take to heart.
* MPAA rating: PG for "a few words." Times guidelines: a scene discussing North's unclothed posterior.
Elijah Wood: North
Jon Lovitz: Arthur Belt
Bruce Willis: Narrator
Jason Alexander: North's Dad
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: North's Mom
Mathew McCurley: Winchell
A Castle Rock Entertainment in association with New Line Cinema presentation, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Rob Reiner. Producers Rob Reiner, Alan Zweibel. Executive producers Jeffrey Stott, Andrew Scheinman. Screenplay Alan Zweibel and Andrew Scheinman, based on the novel by Alan Zweibel. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editor Robert Leighton. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design J. Michael Riva. Art director David Klassen. Set decorator Michael Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.