By Andrew Mullen | April 10, 2005

When you spend ninety years living your life in a particular style, is it wrong to demand that you end it the same way? Can one really dicatate the circumstances of one’s demise? This is the situation the Appelbaum family finds itself in.

Nonagenerian Morris Appelbaum (Peter Falk), lifelong Shakespearean actor, sends letters to his children, Ted (David Paymer), Barry (Judge Reinhold), and Flo (Laura San Giacomo), telling them he is throwing a huge party, and they’re all invited. The catch is that, at the end of the bash, Morris plans to kill himself. Naturally, the three siblings are distraught at the news, and they immediately fly from their three separate locations to New York to convince their father not to go through with it. Once they’ve determined that he really is serious and not just a crazy old man, that is. Much of the action takes place in Morris’ apartment with his children, trading quips back and forth, re-hashing the past, making sense of a surreal present, and desparately trying to inject hope for the future into a man who seems perfectly happy to give it up.

Generally, this film is lively and entertaining. The dialogue among the four principals trips along at a brisk pace, never becoming overly dense or plodding. The humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the production. Most of it sounds like a sitcom, but that’s fitting since Flo’s character produces sitcoms for a living. Since Morris is a Shakespearean actor, there are several parallels to the Bard’s work throughout the film, from the rumination on suicide (a la “To be or not to be”) to the division of a kingdom among three sibilings (from “King Lear”).

All four principals give strong, engaging performances. Peter Falk stands out as the center around which the other characters revolve. His extolling the virtues of suicide are shot through with a love of a life lived well. Finding this seemingly contradictory balance is key to the film’s success, and Falk proves more than equal to the task. The three children are all perfectly cast, as well. San Giacomo’s strong, bitter career woman is familiar ground for her. Paymer’s restrained nebbish performance adds nuance to a role that could easily have become a lame Woody Allen imitation. Reinhold, however, is the weakest of the three. His struggling car dealer/browbeat husband never quite gels the way the other three do. While this is a minor quibble, it does serve to weaken the film a bit. Likewise does the ending. With the emotional level kept tastefully restrained throughout the story, such a sentimental conclusion almost feels like a betrayal, as if the filmmakers decided to take the safest route possible. This is also a minor quibble, however. “Checking Out” is a thoroughly entertaining, intelligent film with an ultimately positive outlook.

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