Joseph Ruben, the capable director of escapist movies whose career peaked in the ’90s with glossy thrillers including The Good Son (1993), kicked off his movie career as the writer, producer, and director of this mediocre but occasionally interesting drama about betrayal between brothers. Despite the presence of such a heavy theme, the movie was crudely marketed by Crown International Pictures to emphasize erotic elements. Yet it’s not as if Ruben’s cinematic debut deserved classier distribution, because the filmmaker’s inexperience shows in every aspect of The Sister-in-Law. For instance, Ruben failed to construct a sufficiently complicated plot, so The Sister-in-Law is filled with aimless scenes that don’t move the story forward, including a number of dull montages set to twee folk songs that were composed and sung by the movie’s star, John Savage. A unique actor whose persona blends eccentricity with sensitivity, Savage could be extraordinary in the right context (notably 1978’s The Deer Hunter), but he’s never evinced a leading man’s charisma. In The Sister-in-Law, he gives what’s best described as a character actor’s performance, all moods and quirks instead of a strong presence.
Savage plays Bobby, an aimless young man who just completed a year and a half of wandering America. Returning to the Westchester, New York, mansion of his brother, successful novelist Edward (Will MacMilian), Bobby strikes up an affair with his sister-in-law, Joanna (Anne Saxon). Meanwhile, Edward has gotten mixed up in transporting illicit items for the Mob—it’s been a while since he made money off books—so Edward pressures Bobby into making a run across the Canadian border on Edward’s behalf. To sweeten the deal, Edward says Bobby can take Edward’s sexy young mistress, Deborah (Meridith Baer), along for the ride. Once Bobby discovers that he’s been duped into smuggling drugs, things go downhill quickly.
On the plus side, the storyline has all sorts of potential for lurid and topical thrills. On the minus side, Ruben’s storytelling is so choppy that for the first half of the movie, it’s difficult to discern such simple facts as how certain characters are related to each other. Furthermore, Ruben expends so much energy delivering the B-movie goods (read: female nudity) that more important narrative considerations get short shrift. The piece comes together in the end, but it’s a bumpy ride. Somewhat compensating for the movie’s shortcomings, however, is a florid dialogue style that occasionally leaps from pretentious to surreal. Early on, Joanna hisses to Edward, “Every beast ought to lick his own wounds—so go off somewhere and lick.” Later, Edward says to Bobby, “You have more shame over a dollar bill than you do about your own penis.” Rest assured, context doesn’t make these lines any better, but at least the dialogue has more vitality than the rest of the movie.
The Sister-in-Law: FUNKY