This week in movies you missed: Just for Thanksgiving, a family dramedy that tried to be American Beauty and fell on its face.
What You Missed
The Burnetts are one of those adorably dysfunctional families you only see in the movies. Mom (Hope Davis) is a control freak who organizes charity functions when she isn't having secret role-playing sex with neighbor Chi McBride.
Dad (Dermot Mulroney) barely seems to notice anything besides the rack on a secretary in his office (Christina Hendricks, playing her "Mad Men" role without any of the interesting parts, or really anything to do besides standing around showing off her physical endowments). Teenage son Eric (Max Thieriot) has teamed up with a group of religious zealots and is really into shooting guns, much to his parents' dismay. Teen daughter Kelly (Britt Robertson) wears too much eyeliner and has random hookups.
Then, in the time-honored way of movie contrivances, Mom gets bumped on the head and returns home an amnesiac.
She has reverted to the time just after her marriage, before she had kids, when she still hated her ice-queen mother (Jane Seymour), loved her husband and enjoyed fun. A celebration of life ensues!
Except not really. Mainly, a lot of disconnected subplots ensue and play themselves out till someone remembers to tack on an action sequence and a family-affirming finale.
Why You Missed It
The Family Tree played two theaters and earned a whopping $6000 or so before heading to DVD purgatory.
Should You Keep Missing It?
I don't have a whole lot to say about The Family Tree. This effort from director Vivi Friedman is a horribly misguided effort to recapture the magic of American Beauty, The Royal Tenenbaums, "Six Feet Under," and other family-dysfunction fare that combines serious drama with black humor. It tries so frantically to be "edgy" that it never stops to develop its characters into people we could conceivably care about. It's a waste of the excellent Hope Davis and a bunch of other recognizable actors.
But, while the film bored me, it gave me a conundrum to chew on (and that's what we all like to do while recovering from chewing on too much stuffing and pie, right?). Before The Family Tree, I watched The Descendants, the George Clooney family drama that's already being touted as a Best Picture frontrunner. Critics are loving it, but I was distinctly underwhelmed.
Basically, I agree with Noel Murray that director Alexander Payne went for obvious, crowd-pleasing plot and character elements when he could have done something way more interesting. Or maybe I got enough of long close-ups of Clooney getting in touch with his emotions in Up in the Air. Or maybe the theme just didn't resonate with me. Overall, The Descendants reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine, so, if you love that, take my mild disapproval as a recommendation.
But on to the idea. What's wrong with a movie being "crowd pleasing"? And how does a movie please the crowd? Critics apply the term negatively to movies with broad appeal that they didn't especially like -- such as, in my case, The Help and The Descendants.
Some would say we're just being a bunch of snobs. But I've enjoyed films with "crowd-pleasing" elements in the past -- Moneyball, for instance. What I seek in a realistic movie drama is some element of traction or friction; some unpredictability; some sense that I'm learning new things about people and their ways of living. The Descendants taught me about Hawaii, which was cool, but it did not teach me anything new about how humans interact, because it relied on comic and dramatic clichés. Well, that was my impression.
Now, let's come back around to The Family Tree. It, too, relies on time-honored clichés and offers no amazing new insights into family life. It, too, offers the familiar message that we need to appreciate our near-and-dear ones before they're dead, and forgive them their foibles.
But the evidence suggests that The Family Tree is not a crowd-pleasing movie. No crowds showed up for it. It sank like a stone.
So, what's the difference between a movie that just wants to be crowd pleasing and a movie that succeeds? Star power, for one thing. Genuine filmmaking skill, for another.
Unlike Friedman and her scriptwriter, who let their story wander all over the place (what the hell was that subplot with Selma Blair as an unhinged teacher sleeping with a disabled female student?), Payne keeps The Descendants firmly focused on Clooney's character and his reactions to a family tragedy. His daughters seem interesting initially, but they end up being just props to get their dad from one emotional place to another.
By keeping the focus on an actor with whom the audience finds it easy to identify, Payne provokes a strong response. It's the same factor that helped The Blind Side become huge, I think. Audiences respond to Clooney and Sandra Bullock — not just as actors playing roles, but as people.
Granted, the problems with The Family Tree go a lot deeper than lack of focus and lack of George Clooney. While The Descendants offers us some novel, clearly authentic elements, like the details of Hawaiian land ownership, and even its clichés are handled with taste and integrity, The Family Tree doesn't seem to be happening in the real world. When it broaches a big topic like race and tries to be daring and un-PC, the results are embarrassing.
Both movies make pretty obvious attempts to shock us (in The Descendants, for instance, when the teen daughter cusses out her comatose mother), but Payne moves beyond that to redeeming sentiments that don't feel tacked on. So enjoy your awards, The Descendants. You've pleased the crowd, and it's harder than it looks.
Verdict: If you like this kind of "wacky" family movie, there's really no reason to rent The Family Tree when you could have Crazy, Stupid, Love.
On the plus side, proof that Davis doesn't deserve to be consigned to roles like the matronly aunt she played in Real Steel. She deserves an Oscar-bait showcase of her own. And would someone please give Hendricks a role that involves more than being a sassy spitfire in low-cut tops?
Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed
Or you can wait for next week, which is a big one, with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Another Earth and Miranda July's The Future. Only one of them played in Vermont for more than a week.