Paternal Instinct

Straight, middle-age widower Harry Mitchell just wants to make his gay son, Jeff, happy. Nothing wrong with that. But Harry tries so hard to encourage Jeff's alternative lifestyle that he becomes a well-meaning nuisance. Eventually Harry learns that no matter how pure your motives or how badly you want to see your offspring succeed, sometimes the best thing you can do is back off a little and let the young ones find their own way.

The makers of The Sum of Us should have learned from their protagonist's example. Like Harry Mitchell, they try a mite too hard to please, and end up playing it way too safe. Like the child of an overprotective parent, The Sum of Us would have been better served had it been allowed to take a few risks.

The main character's name is a tip-off. When did they pass the law that dictates all regular guys in movies must be named Harry? This film, for example, has a lot in common with the 1984 Paul Newman vehicle (and father-son bonding tale) Harry and Son, which was not even Newman's first tour of duty as a Harry. Back in '68, he starred in The Secret War of Harry Frigg, in which he played a regular guy selected to free five Allied generals held captive during WWII.

Every movie Harry is a regular guy in unusual circumstances. When Harry Met Sally...: Regular boy meets regular girl. Harry and Tonto: Regular guy travels across the country with his cat. Harry Tracy: Regular guy robs banks. Harry and the Hendersons: Regular family adopts Bigfoot and names him Harry in an effort to pass him off as a regular guy. Let's Get Harry: Bad guys kidnap Harry and good guys try to rescue him. Dirty Harry: Regular guy with a badge and a really big gun loses his temper. The Trouble With Harry: Regular-guy corpse gets dragged all over the place.

This film's Harry wants nothing more from life than a little companionship, both for himself and for his son, Jeff (another regular-guy name if there ever was one). Although Harry would have preferred a straight kid (one of the film's funniest bits occurs when a brief spark of hope flashes across dad's eyes when Jeff mentions in passing that he has had sex with women), he loves his boy almost unconditionally. If Harry's wish-you-weren't-queer-but-what-can-I-do-about-it? attitude bothers Jeff in the least, the younger Mitchell never lets on. After all the film's Big Theme is tolerance, and Harry embodies that noble condition with a capital T.

So Harry lets no opportunity pass to show Jeff and his gentlemen callers what a broad-minded guy he is. He encourages Jeff to date; he accompanies the boy to the local gay bar. When Jeff finally works up the courage to invite Greg (yet another regular-guy name...say, you don't suppose the filmmakers are trying to tell us that gays can be regular guys, do you?), a handsome young gardener he has met at the watering hole, over to his house to get to know him better, Harry makes a show of embracing Greg and sharing a beer with him. But Harry's hospitality has an unintended side effect -- all the easy domesticity and open acceptance turns Greg off sexually. He misses the excitement of sneaking around and hiding his behavior from his parents. Jeff's dream date ends disastrously with Greg's departure.

Harry can't see the damage he's done, and Jeff can't bring himself to tell the buttinsky to give him some breathing room. Meanwhile dad engages in some wooing of his own after he meets Joyce, a no-nonsense gal he hooks up with through a computer dating service. Their relationship progresses nicely until the day Harry invites her over to the house to get to know her better (somebody should tell these Mitchell men about motels), and she discovers a pile of Jeff's stag mags lying about. Fearing rejection, Mr. Tolerance and Enlightenment has neglected to fill Joyce in on his son's sexual preference. Just because Harry doesn't have a problem with Jeff's orientation doesn't mean he feels comfortable with others' perception of it. Shocked both by the revelation that Jeff is gay and by the fact that Harry has waited so long to spill the beans, Joyce opts for the same course of action as Greg. She splits.

It would have been nice if the film ended there, but screenwriter David Stevens (Breaker Morant) can't leave well enough alone. He tacks on a cloyingly sentimental debilitating-illness-from-left-field ending to hammer home the lessons he wants us all to take from the theater, and to officially canonize Harry and Jeff as saints.

The film's central conceits -- that sometimes father doesn't know best, and that love is love, whether straight or gay, familial or romantic -- certainly merit feature film treatment. And the two male leads -- Jack Thompson as Harry, Russell Crowe as Jeff -- exude blue-collar charm and render the critical father-son bond convincingly. Crowe's open-faced vulnerability likely will come as a shock to those who remember him as the brooding macho skinhead from Romper Stomper.

But the equation is too carefully balanced for this Sum to add up to much more than a mildly entertaining, politically correct diversion. Film protagonists don't come much more likable than Harry Mitchell; even the son whose social life is stifled by Harry's interference cannot bring himself to tell off the boisterous busybody. The bottom line is a film marred by its makers' unwillingness to show us a dark side to either Jeff or his old man, a film that, like Harry, desperately wants to be liked.


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