Multi-millionaire scrap metal tycoon Joe McTeague (Kirk Douglas) is a Grumpy Old Man bound to a wheelchair, who is going to give all of his fortunes to a member of his family. As he has no children of his own, his prospective heirs include his niece Patti (Colleen Camp) and nephews Carl (Ed Begley, Jr.), Frank (Phil Hartman), and Glen (Jere Burns), and their respective spouses, Ed (Bob Balaban), Nora (Mary Ellen Trainor), Tina (Siobhan Fallon), and Muriel (Joyce Hyser), and their various children.
The greedy, backstabbing, Big, Screwed-Up Family members bicker amongst each other as they try to win Joe over into giving one of them his fortunes, but it doesn't work, so they hire a detective to track down Joe's estranged cousin Daniel, but Daniel and Joe don't see eye-to-eye, so then there's Daniel's son Danny (Michael J. Fox), the favorite of Joe and a professional bowler with arthritis in one of his hands. When the other relatives tell Danny about Joe and his personal nurse (Olivia d'Abo), whom they believe is a Gold Digger planning to sleep her way into Joe's will, Danny agrees to help them try to talk him out of leaving his fortune to her.
This movie provides examples of:
- Alliterative Family: Several of Joe's prospective heirs have tried to suck up to him by naming all of their children after him. Carl and Nora's sons are named Joseph and Jonas (both called "Joe" for short), and they have a third son on the way whom they plan to name Josiah. Patti and Ed's daughters, meanwhile, are named Jolene and Joette.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Danny has a loud argument with his father on the subject of greed and materialism, in which Danny chooses Joe over his father. Danny later reveals to his girlfriend that his "father" was an actor hired to create the scene for Joe's benefit, leading to a What the Hell, Hero? moment.
- Central Theme: Greed can corrupt anybody and make them into something they never wanted to be.
- The Dog Bites Back: Douglas, Joe's mistreated butler up and leaves Joe after he turns out to be broke and forced out of his mansion. When Danny asks what will happen to Joe, Douglas responds "He can dance the hully gully for all I care." Subverted since it was all an act by Uncle Joe with Douglas playing the part.
- Foreshadowing: A number of events imply that something is a bit off with Uncle Joe, such as his attempt to contact an old business that has been gone for twenty-five years, despite Joe being sure that he'd spoken recently. This also applies to Joe being easily fooled by a paid actor posing as Daniel. This seems to be a setup for The Reveal that Joe is senile and broke. It is actually setting up Joe's reveal that he was testing his family all along by faking senility.
- Gold Digger: Joe's "nurse", Molly, is accused of being this though the film makes clear that they haven't slept together. After she was ready to sleep with him to secure his loyalty, she ends up leaving due to the realization of how low she had sunk. Her appearance after The Reveal suggests that she may have been faking that persona for the benefit of Uncle Joe's grand scheme.
- Mood Whiplash: After the nurse quits her job, Danny's girlfriend Robin, who accuses him of being as greedy as his relatives, dumps him on the spot. It turns out that in the next scene, she was right.
- Obfuscating Disability: Subverted: After the family is informed that Uncle Joe is suffering from dementia and that he is actually broke, one of the relatives accuses him of this. He is then informed that the condition is quite real, as are Uncle Joe's debts. Only it's a double-subversion: When Danny decides to take care of his uncle despite there being no profit in it, Joe reveals that he actually was faking it all along (even pretending to be fooled by an actor that Danny had hired) and that he isn't really broke. Danny and Robin insist that they will only stay with him if the lies and games end; Joe agrees - then he gets out of his wheelchair.
- Only Sane Man:
- Ed, to an extent. He is just as greedy as anyone else, but he understands the damage competing for an old man's fortune has done to him and everyone, and is able to find the words that make everyone almost walk away from the fortune.
- Robin who also is aware of what the money is doing to Danny and warns him accordingly.
- The Reveal: Joe is suffering from dementia and is actually broke. Then, later, Joe was faking senility and he isn't broke. Oh, and it turns out he doesn't even need his wheelchair.
- Secret Test: The whole plot is revealed to be one of these. Joe's supposed advancing dementia and thousands of dollars of debt were all pure fiction, as he wanted to test which of his nieces and nephews actually cared about him and not just his money. When Danny and Robin are the only ones to stand by Joe after he appears to have lost everything, Joe admits the ruse.
- Slowly Slipping Into Evil:
- Happens to Danny with greed. He first seems motivated by trying to at least keep Uncle Joe safe from the other relatives (who are quite happy to have the man declared incompetent and put into a home), only for him to eventually become as manipulative and as greedy as everyone else, culminating in him hiring an actor to portray his estranged father just so that he could side with Joe in a scripted argument. When confronted with his real father, he finally realizes what he has done and he more or less describes the trope: one thing didn't seem wrong, then another thing didn't seem wrong, until finally nothing seemed wrong.
- Ed himself sums it up quite nicely:Ed: Every time you draw a line in the dirt, you say, "Okay, I go just this far and no farther." He draws another line, just an inch farther and you say, "Why not? It's just another inch, I've already come this far already," and one day you look back and you can't even see where you started. Why don't we all agree to stop here? Let this bimbo have his money. I mean, isn't our self respect worth more than any inheritance?
- What the Hell, Hero?: Danny's girlfriend gives one of these when she learns just how underhanded Danny has become in trying to win his uncle's favor.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are!: After finding out Uncle Joe was broke, Danny is ashamed of himself for stooping to his cousins' level for Uncle Joe's money. Robin, who had left Danny for that reason, consoles him by reminding him of his concern for Uncle Joe when he fearfully claimed to be losing his mind. Danny responds that anyone would have fallen for it. Robin's Response:Robin: Even your cousins?