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(2001) (John Travolta, Vince Vaughn) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: A father tries to figure out whether his son's tale of his new stepfather murdering someone is true or just another lie.
It's been a tough time in the Morrison household. Frank (JOHN TRAVOLTA), a custom shipbuilder, now lives with his girlfriend, Diane (SUSAN FLOYD), since he and his ex-wife, Susan (TERI POLO) have been divorced for a few years. The familial strife has led their 12-year-old son, Danny (MATT O'LEARY) to misbehave, and the fact that Susan is about to marry Rick Barnes (VINCE VAUGHN), a well-to-do entrepreneur, has only exacerbated the problems since the boy doesn't like him.

Neither does Frank, but he encourages Danny to try, and thus both attend Susan and Rick's wedding as a good faith gesture. It's there that Frank notices Rick acting adversely to seeing Ray Coleman (STEVE BUSCEMI), a seedy looking fellow who shows up and obviously isn't welcomed. Frank tries to figure out why Rick reacted the way he did, but is sidetracked when Danny later reports that he spotted Rick kill a man in his truck while the boy was hiding in the backseat.

Due to Danny's previous bouts with lying and run-ins with the law, no one - including Detective Edgar Stevens (RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON) - believes him, but Frank's suspicions are aroused since the boy has never lied to him. From that point on, and as Rick acts menacingly toward Danny to keep quiet about what he knows lest he harm him or his father, Frank sets out to discover what he can about Rick as well as Danny's tale of murder.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Despite the familiar "till death do us part" statement heard at most weddings, more than half the marriages in the U.S. kick the bucket long before either of the participants. While such events are obviously upsetting to the husband and/or wife, it's their kids who usually suffer the most from it, particularly if they're in the middle childhood years.

Young kids are sometimes oblivious to the event and older teens are often mature enough to withstand such changes. It's those kids currently besieged with changes in their bodies, friends and other aspects, though, who often break when divorce, custody matters, new marriages and stepparents are thrown into the mix.

Of course, one's new stepfather usually isn't a cold-blooded murderer, but if he were, that would certainly seem to elevate such domestic strife to new levels, now wouldn't it?' Such is the premise of "Domestic Disturbance," the latest effort from director Harold Becker ("Mercury Rising," "Sea of Love"). A decent, if familiar slice of life picture that then turns into a progressively more conventional and silly thriller as it unfolds, the film has its moments and may "entertain" those who don't see many such films.

For those who have, however, and/or are the type who question illogical, preposterous or just plain awful plot developments and character behavior, this film might be as unpleasant an experience as marital discord.

The picture is a mixture of the old "boy who cried wolf" and "danger in the home" elements that have fueled fiction for a long time. Unfortunately, Becker and screenwriter Lewis Colick ("October Sky," "Bulletproof") - who works from a story by him, William S. Comanor (making his debut) and Gary Drucker ("Red Heat") - either squander the potential or simply retread what we've seen in such films countless times before.

Regarding the "crying wolf" material, the filmmakers drop the ball as far as setting up that premise and then running with it as long as they can. It would have been a great deal of fun - from a thriller standpoint - had we not known for sure if the boy - ably played by Matt O'Leary (making his feature film debut) - actually saw his stepfather kill someone, mistook or imagined the act, or simply made it up to frame him out of spite.

Had that been the case, we'd be guessing, just like the other characters, about the validity of his allegations and would thus be on the lookout for any clues related to it. The filmmakers could have milled that for all it's worth and then some.

Since that's not the case, however, the ensuing material - namely Vince Vaughn acting like the malevolent stepfather from Hell - doesn't have much bark, let alone bite. Armed with the superior position of knowing the stepfather is guilty, we can only sit back and watch the same old tired and predictable conventions be played out. Although Becker thankfully doesn't utilize the "one more time" violent finale commonly found in such films, he does trot out most every other familiar element.

That's not as bad, though, as the film's various illogical moments or inconsistencies. For instance, the last time I checked, stabbing someone in the back with a large, ice pick like device usually results in some blood, but the victim here is seemingly bone dry. I've always thought that Steve Buscemi ("Monsters, Inc." "Ghost World") had a somewhat ghoulish aura about him, but this is pushing that too far.

Then there's the bit where the police allow the suspect (the stepfather) to sit in on the questioning of the accused (the boy) in the police station as he recounts the murderous deed. While that provides for some dramatic uneasiness, it's a ludicrous ploy. Had the "boy who cried wolf" element been handled more properly, that and other material -- such as the mother essentially blowing off the allegations - would have been easier to swallow. Although other elements are also in play to explain certain behaviors, they're not terribly convincing.

As far as the performances are concerned, they're generally far better in the film's first half than in the increasingly preposterous, thriller-based moments of the second. Playing the heroic father figure who goes into detective mode to learn the truth, John Travolta ("Swordfish," "Lucky Numbers") is good and you want his character to win the ensuing battle. Yet, that's mainly by default as it stems from the familiar story setup rather than any sort of tremendously engaging performance on the actor's part.

Stripped of any sort of gray/nebulous qualities that would have been fun to play with, Vaughn ("Made," "The Cell") is reduced to embodying the menacing boogeyman figure who always seems to show up in the frame and glower at the boy whenever the camera tilts up or moves left or right. Meanwhile, Teri Polo ("Meet the Parents," "The Arrival") is decent as the mother, even if her character isn't drawn with behavior that's entirely believable.

With a little more work in the fine details and a change in our knowledge of the pivotal, murderous event, the film could have been an effective and top-notch thriller. As it stands, though, it simply comes off as yet another mediocre one where things either don't make sense or are too predictable and familiar. Far more domesticated than disturbing, "Domestic Disturbance" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 30, 2001 / Posted November 2, 2001

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