Playwright Ivan Travalian’s personal life is as troubled as his Broadway shows. On stage: the actress hasn’t agreed to the part, the director hates the second act, and the investors have no taste. Off stage: his wife is leaving him, she’s leaving her three children with him, and their respective fathers are pressing for custody rights.

The Brady Bunch this is not. Still, Author! Author! is surprisingly sentimental. It’s a story that acknowledges the orphans of divorce, kids abandoned by adults acting like kids. That’s not to say that its lead, played by Al Pacino, is a paragon of maturity. On the contrary, he’s a misfit like them, determined to shield them further from the disaster areas of the grown-up world, while fighting to keep his own head above water.

Travalian is a simmering neurotic, lunging down New York’s streets, speaking softly but carrying fire in his sardonic wit. It’s hard to remember the days before the Pacino School of Yelling was founded, but he’s magnificent in this role, and the chemistry with his pint-sized menagerie crackles. It helps that, as far as child acting goes, these kids are good, and they shine in their parts. They have the same dyspeptic New York wit you’d expect from the Tenenbaum family, and are prone to swearing, like a hard-worked cast on their smoke break.

“Are you going to marry this actress you’re sleeping with, or what?” his five-year-old asks him while taking too long standing at the john. “Give me 10 more seconds to pee. That’s all I need to pee, goddamnit!”

Their urbane precociousness is played for laughs, and mostly it succeeds. If they sound like little adults, it’s because their lives have revolved around adult issues. Break-ups and custody battles litter their histories. At times, this leads to some very moving scenes, like one where Travalian talks to his adopted daughter about the homes she’s been shuttled between, and her ever-expanding web of relatives.

The film doesn’t dwell on these heavy matters. Leave that dreary business to The Squid and the Whale; this is a comedy, one with eminently quotable lines.

At one point, Travalian’s girlfriend Alice moves out of the house.

“Alice doesn’t live here anymore?” asks Igor, Travalian’s oldest and mouthiest ward, apparently familiar with Scorsese’s early work. “Don’t you think that sounds a little funny?”

Sadly, in a weird bit of meta-commentary, Travalian is trying to fix his own comedy’s second act while the film’s is dissolving. The plot’s trajectory becomes somewhat aimless, which may be by design - Travalian’s world, after all, is a messy one. There are several plot twists that don’t go anywhere, including a showdown with the police when Travalian hides the kids on his roof, and a sojourn to Massachusetts in a last-ditch effort to bring back his wife.

These distractions don’t add to the film, but they don’t rob it of much, either. Stories about the modern family have become clichéd over time, with unhappy couples rediscovering why they fell in love in the first place. Like all family stories with happy endings, there’s a little bit of schmaltz to endure in this one, too. But it’s fresh schmaltz, and satisfies like a warm, home-cooked meal

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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