Unstrung Heroes (1995)

Description[from Freebase]

Unstrung Heroes is a 1995 American comedy-drama film directed by Diane Keaton. The screenplay by Richard LaGravenese is based on a memoir by journalist Franz Lidz. When young Steven's mother Selma is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and becomes increasingly ill, his eccentric inventor father Sid — despite deep reservations — allows him to live with his dysfunctional uncles, pack rat Arthur and delusional paranoid Danny, in their cluttered apartment in the rundown King Edward Hotel. The two, who live in a setting worthy of the Collyer brothers, rechristen the boy with the more colorful name Franz and help him cope with his emotions by teaching him to value his own uniqueness. Learning from the odd pair that even though hope and science may fail us, art always survives, Franz secretly begins to create a memorial to his mother before she dies, filling a box with personal mementos — a tube of lipstick, an empty Chanel bottle, a cigarette lighter, and the like. The film shifted the original story's setting of New York to Southern California, and the four uncles from the memoir were condensed into two.


Diane Keaton’s directorial feature film debut is a very impressive one. Unstrung Heroes is a smart, bittersweet drama about a boy growing up in postwar suburbia. 12-year old Steven Lidz (Nathan Watt) is surrounded by his inventor father (John Turturro) and nearly-insane uncles Danny and Arthur (Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards and Maury Chaykin). When his mother Selma (Andie McDowell) develops cancer from her chain smoking, Steven’s life begins to slowly unravel.

The pressures of Selma’s illness take their toll on everyone, and Steven becomes lost in the cyclone of anger and sorrow that accompanies any tragedy like this. To find peace, Steven runs away to stay with his uncles, where he finds a new world of self-realization, living on his own terms instead of the indifferent rules set down by his father and by society.

Along the way, the antics of Steven’s uncles and the outrageous inventions that his father develops are hilarious, and the trio play off of each other like a seasoned comedy troupe. Watching Steven’s metamorphosis from introvert to extrovert is similarly funny.

This film is worth seeing if for no other reason than to see Richards’s Oscar-caliber performance, but Unstrung Heroes offers so much more. The story of loss and rebirth is genuinely touching, and while the plot meanders and seems to break down in places, it somehow seems appropriate, almost mimicking the characters’ lives. Ultimately, the picture is a truly memorable look at dealing with pain while maintaining your sanity.

On a personal level, I also enjoyed the general contempt that the medical profession receives in the film, especially regarding the doctors’ constant inability to act or even offer explanations for Selma’s illness. It’s a frightening metaphor that’s just as relevant today.

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