The story of a widower and his two sons as they face life’s trials in 1970s Oakland, “Jack the Bear” is the sort of film that you watch waiting for something to happen. Arguably, not much really does happen, but that’s okay – the film is more than the sum of its parts.
Danny DeVito is surprisingly good in a dramatic role as a minor television celebrity trying to keep his family together after the loss of his wife. His two boys are his life but he loses sight of that when viewing his life from the bottom of a vodka bottle. Gary Sinise is similarly strong as the neighborhood’s creepy, withdrawn guy at the end of the block who eventually becomes DeVito’s foil. The characters are rich, the writing is strong without being overpowering and the whole film really takes on a “year in the life” feel. When tragedy befalls the family, it feels entirely out of place because the whole film has felt so “normal” up to that point – a sort of normalcy that makes it hard NOT to get drawn in and relate to the characters.
There aren’t a lot of standout moments in this film (the ending notwithstanding). There’s drama and laughter and tragedy, but it’s all played very low-key and close to the vest. Much like real life, the highs tend to only go so high and the lows tend to only go so low – which makes hitting bottom such a glaring wake-up call. “Jack the Bear” is an honest, if unremarkable, look at life – real life, with its warts and tears and laughter. What it lacks in power, it makes up for in charming honesty.