The treat of the film both then and now is the chemistry of Taggart and Arkin as the parents. Their part of the plot is window dressing, but it’s done so well, it lifts the rest of the material.
Director Joe Roth
Screenplay Mike Binder
Starring Patrick Dempsey, Arye Gross, Daniel Stern, Annabeth Gish, Rita Taggart, Joseph Bologna, Alan Arkin
Watching James vs. His Future Self unlocked something that hadn’t stirred in years for me. Daniel Stern had been in so many things, and he’d been pretty damn good. Coupe de Ville stood out for me, mainly due to the fact that I am the youngest of four brothers. This movie deals with three brothers who have drifted apart. If they could get together again, perhaps the inevitable wouldn’t happen in my own situation. Watching it now, over 30 years later, I am closer to their father’s age (the brilliant Alan Arkin), and it is even more poignant.
The story is a simple one. Father Fred “Pop” Libner has his sons, played by Stern, Gross and Dempsey, drive down from Detroit to Florida with a Coupe De Ville (actually a Series 62 Convertible, but who’s counting) as a gift for their mother (the beautiful and engaging Taggart). The brothers had drifted apart, but in the world of perfect movie predictability, there will be arguing, disaster, learning and then hugging along the way.
On plot, this film pretty much writes itself. They could have picked any other team of actors and the quality of the film would suffer. Thankfully, Hollywood guy Joe Roth picked a solid group to play the brothers and he hit a home run with the parents’ subplot. Due to both factors, the film hits a solid triple where it could have been a sacrifice bunt.
Most people revisiting this film might concentrate on Dempsey. As the troubled little brother Bobby, he’s slightly above his material. This is the first film I saw him in that he didn’t annoy me with his presence. That probably said more about me than it did his skill at the time. His career since is not one I have necessarily followed or enjoyed, but he’s been pretty solid.
Gross’ middle brother Buddy stood out most for me at the time, for myriad reasons. His character was drawn and portrayed more like me at the time than either of the others. His middle brother was the appeaser and peace maker. Looking back on it now, he’s less fun as the lovelorn would be suitor of Annabeth Gish. It’s always been easy to see why someone could crush on her.
Stern’s older brother Marvin is perfectly played by Stern. On the surface he appears the desperate control freak. Exactly the type that could push his other two brothers away. His overreaction to each event is played comedically, but he’s also got the ability to surprise in other ways. This will be left for the viewer to experience. If you like Stern like I do, this role fits with some of his best work.
The treat of the film both then and now is the chemistry of Taggart and Arkin as the parents. Their part of the plot is window dressing, but it’s done so well, it lifts the rest of the material. Their back and forth is perfectly older couple, used to each other’s meaning despite seemingly contradictory dialogue. Arkin is usually good all on his own, but the way Taggart overlooks his exaggerated yells and really sees her husband is incredibly touching even now. If you are on the fence with every other actor in this film, I would still give this film a shot based on Taggart’s response to her cinematic husband.
Special credit should go to the soundtrack. James Newton Howard’s score is great, but the song selection ranks right up there with other period pieces like Stand By Me. Extra points for how they use the song Transfusion.
This film is not any sort of perfect. Every inch of the film feels like something you’ve seen before. Whether it’s been better done will be left to each viewer and their situation. This material, primarily due to its execution, still hits the mark for this viewer, even these many years later. It’s worth viewing on a rainy day when sentiment runs higher.
(**** out of *****)
From Ebert’s original (*1/2 out of ****) review:
“…Coupe de Ville is composed of so many formulas that they must have a template for it in screenwriting school.”