Unstrung Heroes

Steven Lidz, a 12-year-old growing up in New York during the '60s with a dying mother and a distracted father, turns to his loony but life-affirming uncles. Sugar shock? Wait. Jump ahead to 1991. Steven, now Franz Lidz and a writer for Sports Illustrated, wins acclaim for a childhood memoir that doesn't choke on whimsy or schmaltz. Wait again. The film version, directed by Diane Keaton from a script by Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County), isn't above a little tear-jerking. There's also the matters of reducing Steven's four unstrung uncles to two, Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin); casting Andie MacDowell as Selma, Steven's Jewish mother; and shooting this Lower East Side story in Pasadena, Calif. Guess what? The movie works like a charm.

McDowell and young Nathan Watt, who plays Steven, are tenderly funny and touching. John Turturro pierces the armor of Sid, the inventor father. And the uncles, who take Steven to live in their rattrap apartment, are pips. Chaykin finds the endearing innocence in Arthur. Richards, though some of Seinfeld's Kramer lingers, is very fine as Danny, a paranoid who imagines anti-Semitic conspiracies everywhere; he insists that "Idaho is a Cherokee word for Jew hater." Keaton has crafted something rare: a screwball comedy that cuts to the heart.