Amos Lassen

In “The Etruscan Smile”, Brian Cox plays an ailing septuagenarian Scotsman who reunites with his estranged son. Cox plays Rory McNeil from a remote Hebrides island who travels to San Francisco to seek treatment for an undiagnosed but clearly serious medical condition. There, he’s reunited with his estranged son Ian (JJ Field) and meets his wealthy daughter-in-law, Emily (Thora Birch), and baby grandson, Jamie. Although all of his previous behavior leads you to think he would instantly drop-kick a baby across a room, Rory instead immediately melts at the sight of the toddler, whom he treats with total tenderness.

Rory is a fish-out-of-water in the cosmopolitan city. He doesn’t like his chef son’s cuisine. He loves to swim naked and this gets him in trouble with law enforcement when he tries it in San Francisco Bay. He wears a kilt to a fancy gala, disdaining the fancy drinks being served and telling the flustered bartender that he wants something that will burn his throat.

A little of this humor goes a long way and just as it threatens to become too much, the film moves into a touching storyline about the romance between Rory and museum curator Claudia (Rosanna Arquette). At first, Claudia ireacts quite coolly to his unconventional attempts at charm, but he eventually wins her over. Just as their relationship starts to heat up, Rory is given a devastating medical prognosis.

Despite such potentially interesting but undeveloped subplots such as Rory being the subject of a linguistics study involving his native Gaelic, the film is too familiar emotionally. Rory’s obsession with his grandson, whom at some point he encourages to climb out of his crib in dangerous fashion, is overdone and almost becomes creepy. Everyone eventually warms up to Rory despite his behavior  but this did not seem authentic to me. That does not mean it will seem that way to you.

Cox is charismatic and succeeds with the story aside from his romance with Claudia which I found hard to believe.  The film has a wonderful ensemble cast that includes  Treat Williams, Peter Coyote and Tim Matheson, who all bring admirable gravitas to their supporting roles.

” TheEtruscan Smile is based on José Luis Sampedro’s novel La Sonriser Etrusca, though nationalities and locations are changed. It is a moving, charming and self-contained film that follows a familiar trajectory, and highlights well-worn themes but Cox is wonderful, and takes the independent, frightened and rude Rory as far as a man like that would realistically go  without becoming a caricature.

Directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis resist the usual clichés where we’re expected to believe someone from a small place in Britain has never seen a lightbulb before. Rory’s health issues, once diagnosed, won’t come as a surprise to anyone used to family dramas about reconnecting before it’s too late.

Even though the story follows an expected path, the cast, make this so much more than a dull family drama.  Rory keeps some wholly unnecessary curmudgeon behavior almost to the very end but otherwise this film is a winner.

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