Writer-director Daniel Burman attempts subtlety in the coming-of-middle-age drama Family Law, but the result is a story devoid of development and emotion. The film, set in Argentina, focuses on Ariel Perelman (Daniel Hendler), a young attorney and legal-ethics professor with a wife, a son, and a father to whom he isn’t especially close. Dad (Arturo Goetz) is also a lawyer, albeit a smooth, glad-handing one with a successful private practice and friends wherever he goes, which makes the distance between him and Ariel especially unfortunate.
Ariel begins to ruminate on their relationship and the kind of father he’s shaping up to be to his cute, precocious toddler, Gastón (Eloy Burman). It’s not promising: Ariel’s not terribly generous with his affection, is willing to allow a construction worker to watch the kid instead of spending the day with him, and resents that the Swiss school Gastón attends encourages frequent parental participation in activities. He scoffs when his wife, at-home Pilates instructor Sandra (Julieta Díaz), reminds him that Gastón’s birthday is coming up, even though he just forgot his father’s 65th. He calls Dad “Perelman.”
Burman is sometimes called the Latin American Woody Allen, but the amount of dialogue in Family Law’s script is equal to, give or take, approximately two scenes out of any Allen flick. Sure, there’s a ton of introspection going on, but it’s signaled by long takes trained on Hendler’s furrowed brow rather than logorrhea. The larger problem, though, is that there’s little background to inform Ariel’s melancholy stares. Through the character’s voiceover, we get a description of the always-grinning Perelman, including his precise schedule and methods of connecting with his clients. (A close-up of his legs as he’s springing down some steps is a nice touch.) Ariel tells us that he met his wife in one of his classes, which he seems to have more enthusiasm for than his eventual family. And as lawyers go, he’s one of the good guys, working for the state and scornful of attorneys such as Perelman who may approach a case without the truth necessarily in mind.
But there’s no family history, no sense of Ariel’s upbringing, no before-and-after context to show how marriage and parenthood may have changed him. What Burman offers, then, is episodic shots of handsome characters’ everyday lives, building up to a dramatic turn that, because it’s so underplayed, misses the drama. Ariel is, at least, a dryly funny guy—for instance, he objects to going to Gastón’s parents-and-kids joint swimming lesson by complaining that he’ll “have to hold hands with other hairy men.” But Family Law is never more than mildly amusing, with a short closing-chapter speech by Ariel that nicely sums up what the film should have demonstrated all along: It’s OK for fathers and sons to be different, and the younger generations shouldn’t be pushed to copy their elders. Like Ariel’s improving intimacy with his own dad, though, the message comes too late.