Draconian dad Charles Taylor (Dafoe) has a novel method of dealing with his young son after he's caught him plagiarising the work of poet Robert Frost.
Forget writing lines or cowering in the corner. He makes him stand in the garage with his arms aloft but weighed down by two tins of motor oil...for a very long time.
This casual cruelty appears to be emotional business as usual between Charles and Michael, a bespectacled misfit whose only protection comes from the women in his life - mum Julia Roberts and cousin Hayden Panetierre.
Fast-forward twenty-odd years and he's a New York-dwelling published author (as opposed to his frustrated literature professor father) who's heading back to his Midwest home for a family graduation ceremony.
Barely has he touched down when tragedy strikes - his mother, being driven too fast by Charles, is killed outright when their car careers into a telegraph pole.
Strangely, the death acts as a catalyst for Michael - cowed even as an adult by his overbearing pop - to come to grips with his fractured relationship and even learn a few things about his apple pie mom.
There's a lot of star wattage on full beam here - Roberts, Dafoe and Reynolds together with Carrie-Anne Moss as his estranged lush of a wife and Emily Watson as his indulgent sister - yet it's never allowed to outshine the story.
Reynolds, despite being wooed by the big-budget excesses of X-Men and Blade, shows he is an actor of considerable range, imbuing Michael with a likeable vulnerability.
It may be both both melancholy and intense but it packs an emotional jolt as the prodigal son reaches an understanding - if not a full-blown reunion - with his crotchety old man.