John Ritter, Jeff Kober, and Jenny Sullivan in J for J(Photo: Rod Lathim)
John Ritter, Jeff Kober, and Jenny Sullivan in J for J
(Photo: Rod Lathim)
As the autobiographical J for J opens, we meet Jenny Sullivan. The author and actress is playing herself, a woman desperate for a well-deserved, good night's sleep. But Jenny is the caretaker of her middle-aged, mentally challenged brother John (John Ritter), and sleep isn't easy to come by: As soon as she lies down, John barges in, still fully dressed and asking for a cup of coffee. When, at last, Jenny does manage to drift off into slumber, she soon awakes in a panic and is confronted by the ghost of her father, a cool Hollywood actor from the postwar period named Barry Sullivan (Jeff Kober).

The real Sullivan lent his leading man looks and menacing scowl to such classics as The Bad and the Beautiful and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. But, to Jenny, he is the father who left--the one with the cigarette, the smile, and the glass of scotch whose legacy looms over Jenny's life. She rubs her eyes and steps out of bed. Clearly, until some things have been ironed out inside her, there will be no sleep tonight.

Barry's ghost directs Jenny to a journal--which he wrote for his son, John, but never showed to anyone during his lifetime--and the dusty manuscript sends her mind reeling: Here is the key to the man who deserted the family, who left Jenny saddled with caring for her brother. Unfortunately, at this climactic moment, what had been a compelling story begins to spin its wheels. Selected readings from the journal provide too much detail in some places and not enough in others, creating a scattered portrait of the dead man for the audience and stirring up more questions than answers for the heroine. Jenny begins a series of monologues and strung-together rhetorical questions; she wonders why her father left them, why he never appreciated their mother, why he refused to admit that his son was mentally handicapped. It's as if we were watching the vacation films of a stranger: We know there is some meaning in what we are seeing but we don't have the frame of reference to be particularly compelled by it.

Director Joseph Fuqua evokes rich, textured performances from his cast of three--particularly from Ritter, who lends a dynamic complexity to his portrayal of the mentally challenged older brother. As the late Barry Sullivan, Jeff Kober stomps heavily across the floorboards of his daughter's bedroom, illustrating the twisted confidence that made him such an indelible figure; Jenny Sullivan, meanwhile, effectively conveys the massive weight that caring for a helpless person can place on someone. When J for J works, it is an illuminating story of personal struggle and redemption; when it rambles and spins on points of questionable relevance, attention floats to the rafters.