It's 1963 -- a film Cliché for a more innocent time -- and the three Libner brothers are at one another's throats. Yes, it's a comedy. Air-force bully Marvin (Daniel Stern), college man Buddy (Arye Gross) and rebel Bobby (Patrick Dempsey) are driving a Cadillac Coupe de Ville from Michigan to Florida. Yes, it's a road picture. The Caddy is a surprise birthday gift from the boys' father (Alan Arkin) to the boys' mother (Rita Taggart), and Dad wants the car delivered in peak condition. He also wants his squabbling sons to learn to love one another. You see, gruff old Dad is dying. Yes, it's a tear-jerker.
Funny thing, though. Just when you're ready to write off the movie as utter contrivance, it sneaks up and disarms you. It helps that comedian-screenwriter Mike Binder based the story on his dad and his dad's two brothers. Binder's lines are often sitcom snappy, but he is remarkably skilled at showing the pain of family members who can't communicate.
Another bonus is the exceptional acting. Arkin's wry wit is always welcome. Stern (the narrator on TV's Wonder Years) is a swift and cagey Marvin, a tightass with genuine courage and humor. Gross (Tequila Sunrise) gives Buddy a romantic vulnerability; dumped by his girl (Annabeth Gish in a striking cameo), Gross makes you feel the sting. And Dempsey, a fine actor stuck in some bad films (Loverboy, Can't Buy Me Love), may have found his starmaking role at last. His Bobby is sassy, resentful, needy, caring and emotionally transparent.
Still, the film's big surprise is director Joe Roth, whose previous movies -- a Rocky ripoff called Streets of Gold and a Revenge of the Nerds sequel -- promised a heavy hand. Now chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, Roth gives evidence that the boardroom's gain may be film's loss. Coupe de Ville is formula, a Stand by Me for the Nineties. But Roth's deft touches keep a fitfully fresh movie of modest virtues consistently entertaining.
One scene in the Caddy -- in which the boys debate whether the hit tune "Louie Louie" is a humping song or a sea chantey -- is howlingly comic. And there are quiet moments, like the one in the gas station when each boy nervously talks to his father on a pay phone, in which Roth allows the camera to hold still and take things in without nudging cuts or close-ups. The movie could have used more scenes like these. But there's no mistaking that Roth has put his heart into this one. Audiences are likely to return the favor.