THERE is such a shortage of artistic ambition in Hollywood that we should probably be grateful for any picture that tackles a difficult subject with a modicum of skill and sincerity.
"Jack the Bear," starring Danny DeVito, is such a movie. Through a dramatic story, it suggests the provocative idea that anger and violence lurk in the hearts not only of obvious villains, but also of ordinary people with ordinary lives; and it tries to be constructive by exposing these bad qualities for what they are.
The movie's strategies for accomplishing this, however, are uninspired and counterproductive. In the end, the gap between its aspirations and its achievements is too great for comfort.
Mr. DeVito plays John Leary, a single father who's doing his best to raise two children, 12-year-old Jack and 3-year-old Dylan, in a Northern California town during the early 1970s.
John's effort to be a good parent is complicated by a couple of factors. For one, he himself isn't that much of a grownup. His behavior is often immature, and even his job is embarrassing for his family, since he earns his living as a childish comedian on a local television show. In addition, he's disturbed by lingering grief over his wife's accidental death and by a drinking problem he has developed as a result.
It isn't easy being a single father when you have failings of your own to reckon with; and being a child in such a household can be quite a challenge, too. Making matters worse for the Leary clan, there's a weird and scary man living in their neighborhood, and the kids are genuinely afraid of him - adding yet another pressure to their young and impressionable lives.
For a while, "Jack the Bear" appears to be a fairly conventional coming-of-age story. Jack copes with his flawed but loving dad, falls in love with a pretty schoolmate, tries to remember what life was like with mom, and suppresses his fear of the family's menacing neighbor.
But it's that neighbor who changes the movie into more of a horror story than a nostalgia picture. We discover that he's not just eccentric but psychopathic, with Nazi sympathies and a streak of criminal brutality in his nature.
On top of this, the film doesn't make him the only purveyor of rage and violence in the children's lives. Other people, from a father down the block to John and even Jack himself, turn out to be capable of violence toward those smaller than themselves.
"Jack the Bear" clearly wants to convey a useful message by telling us that hurtful qualities may take root in ordinary, well-meaning people if they aren't alert to prevent this. Yet the filmmakers contradict their own message by making their main villain, the Nazi-like neighbor, a blatant and unmistakable weirdo who'd terrify just about anyone. It's also unfortunate that Jack's eventual victory over the villain is more physical than moral. We may cheer the bad guy's downfall, but we learn little of valu e from the manner of his defeat.
OTHER failings of "Jack the Bear" are its overwritten narration, its overeager music, and its slick cinematography, which makes every scene look artificial and eye-catching no matter what mood it's trying to convey. The ending is especially unconvincing, swamping the story in a wave of sentimentality that's as gushy as it is contrived.
The subjects of dysfunctional family life and child abuse are certainly worthy of cinematic treatment. "Jack the Bear" marks an advance over the recent "Radio Flyer," which turned its confused story into an unwitting argument for suicide as a solution to childhood problems; and coming soon is "This Boy's Life," which treats similar material with a fair amount of sensitivity and intelligence. Still, it doesn't appear that Hollywood is ready yet to tackle this difficult topic with the credibility it deserv es.
"Jack the Bear" was directed by Marshall Herskovitz, one of the creators of "thirtysomething" on television. Steven Zaillian wrote the screenplay based on Dan McCall's novel.
The supporting cast includes Gary Sinise as the sinister neighbor and Andrea Marcovicci, in flashbacks, as Jack's fondly remembered mother. Robert J. Steinmiller and Miko Hughes are fine as the title character and his little brother.
* "Jack the Bear" has a PG-13 rating. It includes vulgar language, drinking, and scenes of frightening violence toward children.