Peter Falk and Paul Reiser portray a father and son on a road trip in "The Thing About My Folks."
THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS — ** — Paul Reiser, Peter Falk, Elizabeth Perkins; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, profanity, violence); see Page W2 for theaters.

"The Thing About My Folks" is not the first film to capitalize on the appeal of its stars — in this case, Paul Reiser and Peter Falk, two pretty likable performers. But this comedy-drama seems to be battling against its best assets.

"The Thing" referred to by the title turns out to be a squabble between the parents of writer Ben Kleinman (played by Reiser, who also wrote the screenplay). One day Ben's father, Sam (Falk), turns up on his doorstep, bearing a letter from his wife Muriel (Olympia Dukakis). After more than 40 years of marriage, she's decided to leave the crusty carpet salesman.

So while Ben's wife Rachel (Elizabeth Perkins), and his sisters, try to find where Muriel has gone — and try to get an explanation for her seemingly sudden decision — Ben and Sam head off on a road trip through the New York countryside.

They're supposed to check out a farm house that Rachel is interested in buying, but, of course, it quickly turns into a father-son bonding trip, complete with automotive misadventures, uncomfortable hotel stays and even a barroom brawl. (In one of the sillier moments, both men flirt with and go to dinner with a mother-daughter combo, even though they're both married men!)

To be fair, Falk and Reiser do have a believable chemistry as father and son. And what laughs there are result from that. But a lot of the humor is forced and unfunny. Falk serves as the butt of some surprisingly crude humor here, including a series of painfully unfunny flatulence gags that appear throughout the movie. And that ultimately proves to be the film's undoing.

A predictable, too-serious final third doesn't help. In fact, as unsuccessful as the comedy elements are, the dramatic aspects are worse because they're so cliched and saccharine. And the film almost appears to make light of serious illness at one point.

The material also gives the talented supporting cast very little to do (in particular, Perkins and Dukakis are woefully underused).

"The Thing About My Folks" is rated PG-13 for use of some vulgar slang terms and some fairly lowbrow humor (involving bodily functions), occasional use of strong profanity (including two uses of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), and some brief violence (some fisticuffs and some vehicular violence). Running time: 96 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com