Domestic Disturbance belongs to a genre largely abandoned by Hollywood in the last couple of decades - the glossy, star-driven adult-oriented thriller. It's not a particularly good one, but watching it got me musing on how even mediocrities can gain a strange nostalgia through time. Spoilers, though there's not much to spoil. Hell, I'll probably have forgotten what I was writing about by the end of the review.


12-year-old Danny Morrison (Matt O'Leary) is struggling with watching his mother (Teri Polo) get remarried to rich and charming but cold Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), even more so than Danny's father, Frank (John Travolta). But this escalates massively when a mysterious old buddy of Rick's (Steve Buscemi) comes into town... and Danny witnesses Rick murder the stranger. But nobody believes Danny, except his father, who starts doing some amateur investigating of his own.

If that sounds exactly like a thousand other thrillers and episodes-of-the-week of TV shows, well, it is. It certainly doesn't find much to distinguish itself. Of course, the police fail to find Barnes' shady past, while Frank figures it out with less than 2 minutes of Googling. (Athough, this being 2001, he's using MSN search. Another such periodish detail - Buscemi's character complains that the town they're in doesn't have an adult bookstore.) Polo doesn't believe a word her son says or suspect a thing, until she sees Vaughn attending a single suspicious burn on his arm, at which point she's 100% convinced of everything.


The whole thing, naturally, builds to a showdown where Travolta gets to beat the snot out of Vaughn, until Vaughn villainously starts getting the upper hand. But don't worry, the heroes get to kill Vaughn in a manner accidental enough that nobody will be in any trouble or sustain any trauma.

Which is not to say that it's bad. It's basic and predictable, lacking even a single moment that could be considered a plot twist, but it's all put together professionally. Director Harold Becker previously made such solid thillers as Sea of Love, City Hall, and the delightfully ridiculous Malice. The latter shows a stark contrast with this one - where Domestic Disturbance is lacking in plot twists, Malice pulls a new left turn every 10 minutes. But while Domestic Disturbance lacks both the silly fun of Malice and the intensity of its noir atmosphere, it's well-shot and well-edited. None of the set pieces are particularly memorable, but Becker pulls some suspense out of what little he has. (It's also the last film he directed, though he's still alive at 92.)


And the performances are really quite good. Nobody's doing any real stretching here, but they're all putting in a day's work. Travolta's low-key charisma plays well to a working-class hero. Vaughn excels at letting the creep factor slip in subtly but unmistakable through little cracks in the charm. Polo's character is little more than a plot device, but she grounds her in humanity. O'Leary seems more like a real kid than a Hollywood one, and plays the fear and angst effectively. Best of all is Buscemi, who's delightful doing the sort of thing he could but never does sleepwalk through.


The competence and performances aren't enough to raise it to "good", and I probably would have felt pretty let down paying 12 bucks to see it in a theater (or... 6 bucks at the time? Geez Louise, ticket prices just don't stop rising.), but seeing it on Amazon Prime for what works out to effectively 75 cents feels like a decent way to pass 90 minutes of time. That taut running time partly comes from editing that seems to have cut out a lot of transitions and the beginnings and endings of scenes, but it keeps it from ever getting boring. 

The genre reaches way, way back into the silent era, hitting grand heights under Hitchcock in Hollywood's Golden Age, and remaining popular mid-level studio films through the 80s and 90s before largely dying out in the early aughts. 2001 featured successes like Along Came a Spider ($105 million gross worldwide), Memento ($39 million but on only a $5 million investment), The Score ($113 million), Don't Say a Word ($104 million), and Vanilla Sky ($200 million), alongside flops like Antitrust ($17 million), The Tailor of Panama ($27 million), and Original Sin ($16 million). Domestic Disturbance fell in the middle of these, with a decent $54 million gross. However, its budget was a huge $52 million, with another $20 million+ in the marketing. And since studios only take back a bit over half the gross, Paramount probably only made back their marketing money, writing down almost their entire investment.

And, watching it, it's hard to figure out where, exactly, that $52 million went, beyond Travolta's paycheck. This was, after all, back in the day when his asking price was $20 milllion. But in terms of production value, this could have been a cable TV movie. And that might be part of what largely ended this sort of thriller - too many of them had out-of-control budgets purely to get stars who drew audiences but wouldn't make a hit out of any piece of crap. The bigger problems, though, were probably the increasing challenge of marketing films in a time when the forms of media you'd have to advertise on had exploded, and the studios' increasingly reliance on marketing purely to teenage boys, only occasionally remembering that adults and teen girls like to go to the movies, too. Still, the genre may be having a mild resurgence - recent hits like Murder on the Orient Express, A Simple Favor, and especially Knives Out prove there's still an audience for this. But one suspects it will remain, at least for a while, a relatively rare occurance.


Which is a shame. It's easy to miss slick adult-aimed thrillers with charismatic movie stars in stories that take their time with suspense being a multiplex mainstay rather than an occasional gem sneaking in. But, of course, these days, I just miss theaters. For once, even something as forgettable as Domestic Disturbance would be wonderful to see in a dark room with a crowd. Man, do I look forward to the day when the mere idea of going outside and being in a crowd sounds like a special joy. 

And when it's hard to even talk about movies without the jarring comparison to a world endlessly on fire, in a country where the ruling party just keeps throwing fuel on the fire while the other party frowns in mild disappointment. And where the theatrical experience is continually under attack from a brutal monopolistic sewer rat of a corporation strangling the industry and the Paramount Decrees getting struck down and theatrical companies being mismanaged. It feels like there's so little to believe in outside the imagined romanticisms and rose-colored memories buried in the mind.

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe my actions still have meaning. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still here. Do I believe the world's still here? Is it still out there?

... yeah. We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are.

... where was I?

Well, guess there's gotta be some other forgettable piece of junk to disappear into for an hour and a half.


Director: Harold Becker
Producers: Donald de Line, Jonathan D. Krane
Writers: Lewis Colick
Cast: John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo, Matt O'Leary, Steve Buscemi

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and language.

Budget: $52 million

Box Office: $45 million domestic, another $9 million internationally, for a total of $54 million worldwide.