Domestic Disturbance (2001)

by Cynthia Fuchs



Check the poster for Harold (Sea of Love) Becker’s new film, and you know all you need to know. Dominating the image is a somber and very large John Travolta’s head, to the right stand little full figures of Teri Polo (who plays his ex-wife, Susan) and Matthew O’Leary (who plays his 12-year-old son, Danny). In between big head and his beloved family unit is a sharp red point, all the way up the middle of the frame: standing inside the point, leaning menacingly against its edge—is Vince Vaughn. He plays Rick, new husband for Susan and standard horror-movie stepdad for Danny. And there you have it: red point guy divides family members, leading to crisis and resolution. Fine.

Still, Domestic Disturbance goes through the motions, slowly at first, and then with a speed that would seem remarkable if you cared a whit what was going on. Sadly, the 88-minute running time doesn’t make the action any more efficient or well paced, just incoherent. In fact, the movie takes a good half hour to lay out the characters’ situations, their dispositions and foibles, before it actually gives up some plot, by which time you’ll be forgiven for dozing off. To wit: Travolta’s Frank Morrison is a hardworking, imperfect, serious kind of man, a wooden boat builder who lives in a workshop/shack near the water, in an upscale section of the Maryland shore called Southport (the film was shot in North Carolina). Because few people want wooden boats anymore, he explains with an appropriate mix of melancholy and yearning to Danny, times are tight.

cover art

Domestic Disturbance

Director: Harold Becker
Cast: John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo, Matthew O'Leary, Steve Buscemi, Ruben Santiago-Hudson

(Paramount Pictures)

But Frank, a recovering alcoholic (this is reportedly one of the reasons he and Susan split, though the film doesn’t dig into that history, thank goodness), is staying straight these days, and he’s proud of his artful work (his father did it, as did his grandfather and great grandfather). When his motherly secretary scolds him for selling a boat to a rich couple for less than he could have, Frank smiles sheepishly and tells her to ask him some day about his “theory of noble failure,” as if this explains his inability to make living that might support his family. (Besides, as a friend of mine pointed out, it’s not completely clear how making boats for wealthy white folks who can afford such leisure time extravagances is a noble endeavor.)

Frank and Susan do manage to do one noble thing, that is, get along for Danny’s sake, though Frank’s girlfriend Diane (Susan Floyd) points out a few times that he’s carrying a torch for what she euphemistically calls his “old life.” In other words, the plot-door is open for a reconciliation (since Frank’s desire is primary here and Susan’s will be proven horrifically unsound), which Danny wants desperately. Evidently, as Frank notes, the poor kid has forgotten that the marriage wasn’t exactly happy. And so, as the film begins, Danny is “acting out” in a by-the-book fashion because his mom is about to be remarried, to Rick, who instantly looks slimy in the way that Vaughn is so good at looking.

In case you miss the, um, boat on this idea, the film is kind enough to include a pop-psychologizing local cop, Sergeant Edgar Stevens (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Helpful as he tries to be, Stevens is one of the clunkiest plot devices to come down the pike in some time: it seems that he knows enough about Frank and Susan’s family history that he can advise them about how to handle trouble-boy, but so little that he doesn’t know the name of her intended, though absolutely everyone in town knows him, and is, incidentally, invited to the wedding. The town-wide Rick-lauding extends to his winning some Chamber of Commerce “Man of the Year” Award, which does two things: it hammers home the degree of Frank’s current and ongoing “failure,” and it makes everyone in town look as dimwitted as Susan.

The only two characters who divine Rick’s true nature are Danny and Frank. The latter takes a minute extra of convincing, but that’s because he’s supposed to be an adult and well-behaved, while Danny gets to be frightened almost immediately. Following the wedding, mom leaves him to play catch in the back yard with Rick. So that you know Rick hates the son-who-is-not-his and only wants the pert blond wife (maybe for social status, maybe to cover up his shady past, maybe for the child she will beget for him—all potential, none explored), he becomes instantly abusive, accusing Danny of “throwing like shit.” When Danny feebly protests (he’s a kid, after all), Rick sternly announces, “Don’t ask me to play again if you’re gonna be a brat.” Cut to Danny with Dad, who soothes his worries that he might make a mistake varnishing one of the boats: “That’s why God invented sandpaper.” Aww.

Soon after, Danny witnesses Rick’s murder of his ex-partner Ray (Vaughn’s bar-brawl buddy Steve Buscemi, who is, unfortunately, only on screen about ten minutes total), killed with an ice-pick in the back and then burns in hell-fiery furnace at a brick factory. Suitably alarmed, Danny runs off into the suitably rainy night and alerts dad. Frank wants to believe, but finds it initially difficult when the risibly inept 5-0 doesn’t find a single clue. Not one. No blood in the car where it happened, no fingerprints, traces of bone, tire tracks, fibers, or anything else at the brick factory. Neither does anyone bother to check on Rick’s past, or that of notably out-of-place wedding guest (his ugly jacket and obnoxious demeanor mark him right off as “seedy guy”). Frank looks them up on the net, high technology apparently beyond the means of the Southport PD.

Though Danny begs to move back with Frank, he is consigned to live with Rick and Susan: the former comes to his bedroom and bathroom at night to threaten him, and the latter is just retarded when it comes to looking after her son. The frontrunner for Domestic Disturbance‘s greatest annoyance has to be this Bad Mom angle: not only is Susan willfully clueless when it comes to Rick’s patently evil designs, but as well, when she learns that she’s pregnant with Satan’s spawn, she neglects Danny to tend to her big baby of a husband. Still, there are other contenders: Frank’s ridiculously speedy trajectory from poofy sincerity to action heroics, Rick’s corny backstory, and the terminally country behavior of Sergeant Stevens. With all these possibilities, it’s just hard to choose.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article