November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, James Caan, Gwyneth Paltrow

There’s so much to like and admire about Flesh and Bone, beginning with its quirky characters and lively dialogue, that the fact that it ultimately disappoints is doubly disappointing. The problem here is that although there’s abundant flesh, as in atmosphere and personality, there’s too little bone, in the form of ideas. This is essentially a one-issue movie, a film that explores the question, “Is evil necessarily passed on from one generation to the next?”

The movie, written and directed by the obviously talented Steve Kloves, opens with a prologue in which a west Texas farm family takes in for the night a mule boy who has shown up in their yard. While the family sleeps, the boy lets in his shotgun-wielding father (Caan) and together they begin robbing the house. When the robbery is interrupted, Caan blasts the family, sparing only a wailing infant girl. Cut to 30 years later when the boy, now an adult (Quaid), has settled into a dull, constricted life spent restocking vending machines in dusty Texas towns and sleeping with other men’s wives. A chance encounter with Ryan, a hard-drinking woman on the run from an abusive husband, causes Quaid to confront his past. Why? Because Caan, the proverbial bad penny, turns up again and discovers that Ryan—can you hear the plot gears grinding?—is the spared baby all grown up.

Although the movie runs out of surprises about halfway through, there are still satisfactions to be had, beginning with first-rate performances from Quaid, Caan and, especially, the slithery Paltrow (daughter of Blythe Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow), who plays a devious woman given to stealing jewelry off corpses. An added kick comes from the casting of Scott Wilson, one of the killers from 1967’s In Cold Blood, as an ex-con who lectures Quaid about the travails of being once guilty, forever suspected. The weak link is Quaid’s real-life wife, Ryan: She tries hard, but the effort shows. (R)

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