THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE PERFECT FAMILY"
As a lifelong Catholic, I've known people like Eileen Cleary. She's a devout practitioner of the religion, and she adheres firmly to the rules of the Church, right down to the letter. She also doesn't understand it when other people live their lives against those rules. It's not prejudice; it's a fundamental failure to grasp that what is so central to her own being is less so to others. In The Perfect Family, Eileen is forced to confront the fact that the Church rules may, at times, go against what actually works for her in day-to-day life. It's rare to find a movie that deals honestly with organized religion. It's even more rare to find one that respects it. This is a story about a woman whose heart knows one thing and believes another.
Kathleen Turner plays Eileen, who has been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year, an honor she desperately wants to win. There is stiff competition in the form of another parishioner, Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence). In order to win, Eileen must receive a visit from the Bishop, who will meet and interview her family members. She encourages them to hide their personal secrets: husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic; son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) just left his wife for another woman; daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is a lesbian who's pregnant via artificial insemination. (For anyone unfamiliar with Catholic dogma, infidelity, same-sex relationships, and any “non-natural” forms of conception are considered no-nos.) No one is happy about being pressured to take part in the charade, especially her grown children. Frank Jr. says he's happy for the first time in his life, and wants his mom to be happy for him. Shannon resents the fact that Eileen believes her lifestyle to be immoral. The more Eileen tries to force everyone to be “perfect,” the more she ends up hurting the ones she loves. She justifies this by clinging to what the Catholic Church has told her to believe, but following the dogma only seems to lead to more pain and unhappiness.
The Perfect Family explores the divide between what people are taught in their religions and how society (rightly or wrongly) actually works. Eileen Clearly is a fascinating character because she lives her life in the eye of that storm. Part of her believes she is doing the right thing, living according to Church's teachings, and earning herself an eventual ticket to Heaven. At the same time, she comes to see that her strict adherence to Church tenets causes her family to feel rejected by her, to feel as though they don't measure up to her standards. The drama in the film comes from watching Eileen struggle with this knowledge. Her family is vitally important to her, but so is her faith. Short-shrifting either one of them feels deeply wrong. She doesn't know what to do. Lots of movies put their characters into tough, conflict-ridden situations; The Perfect Family finds one that is gripping in its philosophical implications. This is a dilemma people find themselves in all the time, so it has a nice, authentic ring to it.
As Eileen, Kathleen Turner delivers her best screen performance in years. Played wrongly, the character could be a one-note joke, offensive to the faithful. Turner makes her earnest and sincere, even as she's confused. Her scenes with Deschanel are the best in the film. Shannon's whole life goes against the formal Church teachings that Eileen holds so dear; nevertheless, this is her daughter, for whom she wishes nothing but happiness and joy, as any parent would for a child. Watching the two women tenuously dance around each other, trying to understand opposing points of view, is very compelling. There's real weight to these scenes.
The Perfect Family occasionally goes for moments of broad comedy, which don't work and are at odds with the ambitious themes in the film (although you gotta love any modern movie that casts Richard Chamberlain as a priest again, after The Thorn Birds). Director Anne Renton and screenwriters Paula Goldberg and Claire Riley obviously want to bring a touch of humor to the picture, which is fine. It just would have felt more organic had it been a touch lighter. Also, a third-act revelation about Eileen's past fails to register as the surprise it's intended to be. You can see it coming before it officially arrives.
Even so, the movie succeeds as a portrait of a woman in crisis. Perhaps the thing I like best about The Perfect Family is that it doesn't make bishops, priests, or faithful Catholics the butt of a big joke. It doesn't turn them into caricatures. You may well even be surprised by how religious leaders are portrayed in the end. When all is said and done, the film makes a very valid, affirming point. It says that religious rules are here to guide us, not to bind us. There is no “perfect,” and that's just fine, because we're all in this non-perfect boat together. The Perfect Family is a tiny treasure, a rare story that's willing to look at what faith means and how it truly applies to our everyday lives.
( out of four)
The Perfect Family is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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