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The Family Tree

Entertainment One; 87 minutes

Director: Vivi Friedman

Written by on August 28, 2011 

It’s times like this that make one rue the day American Beauty made it big. While it introduced millions to the beautiful style of Sam Mendes and cemented both Kevin Spacey and Chris Cooper as two of the more talented thespians around town (not to mention reviving Annette Bening’s career), it also opened the door for more than a decade’s worth of satirical suburban dark comedy-retreads, The Family Tree not discounted.

And though it starts dark (and funny) enough – with a mysterious tree-top peeping tom slipping from his perch and accidentally hanging himself by binocular strap – Vivi Friedman‘s film never finds a balance between comedy and drama, populating the plot with far too many characters and far too little depth.

The film stars Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Brittany Robertson and Max Thieriot as the Burnett family, a sad-sack group of people whose lives are made better when Bunnie, the mother of the clan (Davis), is knocked unconsciousness and loses a bit more than her short-term memory. She resets back to when her and her husband Jack (Mulroney) were just married and truly in love, before her children (Robertson and Thieriot) were born and before she started talking to her vicious mother (Jane Seymour) again. Of course, Bunnie’s new found youth does not solve everything. Everyone else in the film must deal with the problems that don’t involve her, and there are many, many, many.

Young Eric Burnett (Thieriot) is struggling with his identity, spending most of his time with a gun-toting preacher, played by Keith Carradine. That is, until he saves the school’s John Bender-esque rebel (John Patrick Amedori) from nearly getting beaten to death by his friends. It’s a pretty scary scene, Eric dragging Amedori’s near-unconscious Paul from a pond and helping him breath. There’s little funny about the scene, so when the characters make light of the event later on in the film, it feels strange, as though we, the audience, were not in on a joke.

Too much of the film feels like this, especially scenes involving Mulroney. Though he be a very capable actor, his Jack lacks any bite. Even after his revitalized wife refreshes his own life purpose, he remains dull and unexciting. Moments of sexual comedy, one in particular that requires Jack to say the word “dildo,” don’t work. Perhaps the film could have worked better as a straight drama. Consider an honest exchange, early on in the film, between Robertson’s daughter Kelly and her father. While he watches his wedding video, his wife still unconscious, Kelly comes clean about her true feelings for her mother, who she feels might actually hate her. It’s a powerful little moment that’s emotions are barely touched on at all throughout the remainder of the film. Instead of anchoring the film on something real and accessible, Jane Seymour appears in the last 10 minutes and adds nothing, while Bow Wow shows up as a heinous African-American stereotype that the film’s writer, Mark Lisson, unsuccessfully tries to play with. The film runs for 87 minutes, and it certainly feels as though the wrong 87 minutes were put together in post production. What was left on the cutting room floor? Or in the script?

All those involved in this film feel much better than the film itself, begging the question: what exactly did they see in the source material? And/or what changed from the final draft to the final cut that makes this whole thing play like such a mess?

All that said, young Brittany Robertson has some true natural charisma, and hopefully her career finds better projects than this in her future.


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