Can't wait for this summer's return of the HBO series "Succession"? A movie now available to stream through the MSP Film Society and Parkway Theater offers its star Brian Cox doing a different version of surly and childish.
"The Etruscan Smile," uses Cox's own Scottish accent instead of the American one he employs as a vile tycoon on "Succession." He's grouchy Rory MacNeil, who travels from his home on Scotland's Hebrides islands to San Francisco to visit his son, daughter-in-law and new grandson. Although his approach to child care consists of yelling, "Come on, bairn. Man up!" Rory quickly succumbs to his grandson's cuteness and finds a reason to live that feels more affirming than the who's-going-to-die-first contest he has going with a nemesis back in Scotland.
"The Etruscan Smile" is a variation on a movie trope so familiar that, at one point, any foreign film that used it was practically guaranteed to win an Oscar: the old coot who is softened up by hanging out with a winsome kid. But "Smile" (the title comes from a sculpture Rory visits in a museum) is more thoughtful and less sentimental than many of its ilk. Although that baby is pretty dang cute.
For one thing, "Etruscan" doesn't make Rory's journey too easy. The minute it introduces us to his brisk, expensively suited daughter-in-law (Thora Birch, who seems like she's been missing from the movies for about two decades), it appears she's going to be a Type A pain in the neck. But, although she and Rory disagree about a lot, "Etruscan" makes clear that she gets a bang out of her visitor from Scotland. As rustic as his methods may be, she recognizes that he might have something to teach her.
There's similar complexity in Rory's budding relationship with a museum curator played by Rosanna Arquette, another welcome returnee from the Female Actor Over 35 Witness Protection Program. "Etruscan" acknowledges a degree of unlikeliness in their friendship-and-maybe-more by not moving things along too quickly. Cox's intelligence and charisma are clear, but the film doesn't ignore the bad attitude that rightly makes Arquette wary of him.
While the coot is falling for the "bairn," the script, credited to five writers, introduces a fresh, revealing subplot: Researchers interview Rory in his native Gaelic as part of efforts to make sure the language doesn't die. As a linguist (played by Peter Coyote, whose voice kept making me think I was watching a Ken Burns 27-part miniseries) interviews Rory, speaking in his native tongue connects him to both his past and to a future he had not expected to care about.
In general, "Etruscan" is a movie that's good at connections. The ending was always going to be a tricky proposition — after all, it's a comedy in which the main character has been talking about dying from the opening minutes. But a return to Scotland in the closing scenes provides "The Etruscan Smile" with a perfect conclusion that reminds its characters, and us, that an ending is also a beginning,