After waking up to a Dear John letter from his wife of 47 years, Sam Kleinman isn’t sure what he should do. He keeps his wife’s disappearance a secret for a day or two, but knows he must eventually show the letter to his adult children. And when he finally “just drops by” son Ben’s house late one night—sans Mom—it’s apparent something’s up. Ben promptly alerts his sisters, who go into detective mode to discover any reason for their mother leaving. Meanwhile, his job is to take care of Dad—a task that ends up being bigger than he bargained for. A simple house-hunting visit to upstate New York turns into an impromptu road trip that forces both father and son to face a lifetime of unspoken, pent-up family issues.
The Thing About My Folks is all about family. In offering a straightforward depiction of the through-thick-and-thin commitment shared in marital, parental and sibling relationships, it also deals with the walls that can get built between family members over time.
At the forefront is the father-son relationship between Sam and Ben. Despite their occasional heated discussions, their love is beautiful, deep and honest. Twice Ben lambastes Sam for neglecting his own wife, Muriel, yet is quick to apologize for being too harsh. When Sam says he’s sorry for failing as both a husband and father, he and his son share a pure, poignant moment rarely shown between two men in movies. Throughout their road trip, Sam tries to make up for all the small things Ben feels they never got to do together. His newfound carpe diem attitude (though reckless in some regards) screams of the importance of treasuring each moment with family, which causes Ben to re-evaluate his own parenting. Ultimately, Ben accepts his father’s often embarrassing forthrightness, and Sam isn’t too proud to heed his son’s advice. Both discover they share more common ground than their generational differences would indicate.
Along with highlighting parent-child relationships, The Thing About My Folks places marriage center stage. In counseling his father, Ben underscores the importance of showering a spouse with small but thoughtful acts of affection and appreciation. Though Sam was content to be happy while his wife was not (“If a person is determined to be unhappy her whole life, it’s her fault”), he finally accepts the fact that he could have done more to care for her needs. He admits that all his hard work and material earnings meant nothing compared to his family. Muriel, on the other hand, is commended for being “made of love." And she's said to have continued holding on to love (at least with her kids) and the belief that her marriage could someday change, even "under all that anger, through all the disappointment."
Through its themes of forgiveness, acceptance and persevering love, the movie also preaches a strong message of keeping hope alive no matter what the situation—or even how long that situation lasts.
Sam calls an upstate New York site the “finest golden corner of God’s green earth.” Ben mentions people praying for world peace.
Sam prides himself on his faithfulness to his wife, saying he’s never even “laid a finger on another woman.” He contrasts himself with a co-worker notorious for having extramarital affairs. During one stop, however, Ben commends his father for still ogling women, adding that a young woman wearing revealing jeans would be “insulted if you didn’t look” (the camera lingers on her bending over). When the same twentysomething flirts with the two, Sam makes a joke about her breasts. He and Ben, though both married, take her up on an offer to have dinner with her and her mother.
After Ben asks whether his parents had premarital sex, Sam answers by recalling the first time he and his wife slept together and describes the lingerie she wore. He also remembers a high-school “knockout” he “never got a shot at.” Ben’s wife wonders if her mother-in-law has run off with an ex-lover. A couple of women show cleavage, with one wearing a particularly revealing top. Couples kiss.
A car crashes into a tree. Sam gets in a fight with a dishonest man over a game of pool and hits him in the face and groin with a pool stick. (He accidentally hits his son in the process.)
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is used at least 30 times; the f-word is heard twice. God’s name is misused almost 20 times—about a third of those in combination with “d--n.” Jesus’ name is profaned about 10 times. An additional two-dozen milder crudities (including “a--hole” and “t-ts”) get spoken.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Sam and Ben go to a bar one night. During a game of pool, Sam smokes a cigarette—and enjoys every second of it—for the first time in more than 40 years. Ben discloses that his mom secretly smoked and kept a pack of Camels in her bedside drawer. He and his father accept an offer to drink cocktails with a couple of women, and the foursome is shown downing shots. (Margaritas, tequila and wine get either mentioned or shown.) Sam later says he’s drunk.
Other Negative Elements
“Old man” gags involve Sam dousing his privates with baby powder and passing gas. Jokes are also made about him going to the bathroom on himself and relieving himself on the side of a road and in the bushes. Ben vomits outside a restaurant after a heated confrontation.
More importantly, trying to smooth over certain situations, Ben doesn’t always tell his dad the truth. In a hidden letter to her husband, Sam’s wife says she almost wishes Sam would have an affair so he could feel the pain he’s caused her. She also shares a bleak outlook on life: “You just live, and then one day you’re done. That’s the big forever.”
About his debut movie screenwriting effort, Paul Reiser (best known as Mad About You's Paul Buchman) says he created a “grown-up comedy that makes audiences feel." He half-jokingly adds, "This film wasn’t made for 15-year-olds. I think our slogan should be if you’re under 40, you’re not allowed to see this movie.”
That’s not such a bad idea, considering the foul language, drug and alcohol content, and sexual situations that get a hefty amount of screen time. But it’s also extremely unfortunate. In fact, the more I think about the redeeming qualities found in this well-crafted, superbly acted indie flick, the more my disappointment grows that Reiser and his team couldn’t find a way around these sore spots.
The Thing About My Folks doesn’t just commend strong marriages and tight-knit families, it honors them by casting aside the notion that affairs, material wealth or career aspirations could ever come close to replacing what God intended as the core of society. And in doing so, it holds up such virtues as faithfulness, perseverance, commitment, hope, forgiveness, acceptance and honesty.
It’s rare for a movie to not only fervently preach that family matters, but also show it through characters who honestly care for each other despite deep-seated, long-lasting issues. If you decide to see The Thing About My Folks, expect it to make you cry. And laugh. It may even spark a few long-awaited heart-to-heart conversations, apologies or embraces of your own. But it should also make you frustrated that so many moviemakers seem incapable of presenting quality, relevant, impacting messages without diluting them with contentious content.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Peter Falk as Sam Kleinman; Paul Reiser as Ben Kleinman; Olympia Dukakis as Muriel Kleinman; Elizabeth Perkins as Rachel Kleinman; Ann Dowd as Linda; Claire Beckman as Hillary; Mimi Lieber as Bonnie
Raymond De Felitta ( )