THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE FAMILY TREE"
Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Max Thieriot, and Britt Robertson get therapy in The Family Tree.
The Family Tree falls squarely into the sub-genre of indie films known as the Dysfunctional Family movie. We get at least one of these per year, some great (Little Miss Sunshine) and some dreadful (titles withheld out of kindness). This one lands somewhere in between those extremes. It has a terrific cast of actors doing committed work; it also has a screenplay that tries so hard to be quirky that it tires itself out. What else can you say about a movie whose theme song is a ditty called "Shut the Fuck Up?"
The family in question is the Burnetts. Mother Bunnie (Hope Davis) and father Jack (Dermot Mulroney) have seen the passion in their marriage fade away. She's taken to screwing the next-door neighbor, Simon (Chi McBride). Meanwhile, he fantasizes about his busty secretary (Christina Hendricks) while simultaneously fending off the advances of a libidinous colleague (Gabrielle Anwar). Their two kids are pretty messed up well. Son Eric (Max Thieriot) has fallen under the guidance of a gun-lovin' preacher (Keith Carradine), while daughter Kelly (Britt Robertson) has a reputation for performing sexual favors on any boy who asks. The film tracks all these characters in the aftermath of an accident in which Bunnie sustains a head injury and consequently develops memory loss. As she gradually regains her memory, everyone is spurred to examine their role in the familial strife.
There's no doubt that The Family Tree has a terrific cast, and everybody is very good here. Although Davis and Mulroney are better known, it is Thieriot and Robertson who walk away with the picture, probably because they have the best subplots. Eric is pressured by friends to bully anyone who is different, yet he ends up befriending one of their prime victims. Kelly, meanwhile, finds herself drawn to a sexually confused outcast (Madeline Zima) who carries on an affair with a female teacher (Selma Blair). How these characters deal with these situations – and how they deal with their parents' reactions to them – makes for some engrossing viewing. The young actors nicely capture all the awkwardness and anguish that is an essential part of adolescence.
The other subplots fall victim to Mark Lisson's script, which doesn't allow much to be simple. Almost everything in the movie strives for maximum eccentricity. For example, it's not enough for Bunnie to have an affair; she has to get off by having Simon dress up like a burglar, literally break into the home, and pretend to rape her. Then there's the goes-nowhere subplot about a character who accidentally hangs himself in a tree while masturbating. He finally falls out of that tree at a moment carefully calculated for maximum (i.e. forced) “wackiness.” The worst offense in the mega-quirk department comes when two thugs – one played by rapper Shad “Bow Wow” Moss – are introduced. Despite having no business in a family comedy/drama whatsoever, they reappear toward the end in order to create a faux “reality check” moment for the Burnetts that pays off with a gag so contrived it'll make your eyes roll. All of this builds to an utterly preposterous finale, complete with gunplay and a blatantly absurd deus ex machina.
Quirkiness and eccentricity can be very effective in movies (such as the aforementioned Little Miss Sunshine and Juno), so long as those things are grounded in reality. The events of The Family Tree are, for the most part, not grounded at all, and therefore the quirks come off as affectations. For that reason, I never really got as fully absorbed as I would have liked. In fairness, some of the fault may also rest with director Vivi Friedman, who stages everything in a style that is averse to subtlety.
In the end, I'm down the middle on The Family Tree. The performances entertained me, although the way the plot unfolded left me frustrated. Maybe someday these actors will be brought together again with a script that is more worthy of their immense talents.
( out of four)
The Family Tree is rated R for language, sexuality, and mild violence. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.