Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Perfect Family (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

The Perfect Family 

If you like a bit of lighthearted camp with your religious circumstance, "The Perfect Family" will fill your habit, even if it is ultimately a belly-chuckler rather than a lasting provocateur of the spirit.  Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, a Catholic mom caught in a clash  of beliefs, that clash regarding whether or not to accept her gay daughter Shannon (Emily Deshanel) and her girlfriend Angela (Angelique Cabral). Events become further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Cleary is nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year. Should she accept tradition and scorn her daughter together with her plans to marry and have a child or should Eileen modify her faith? This is the crux of the film and it would be quite compelling had it not gone for melodrama and bits that seem  reminiscent of "La Cage Aux Folles". 

As the credits roll,  Kathleen Turner works her face up in knots. She constantly frets and bothers, spilling the communion wafers on the floor. She also crosses herself facing her household shrine. When I saw this film, the audience erupted into peals of laughter and I failed to see anything really funny. But perhaps it helps if you went to Catholic school. 

The most interesting thing about Turner here is that she still has those iconic mischievous bad girl bedroom eyes  underneath a very matronly exterior. Audiences remember her well in such classics as "Body Heat" and John Waters' "Serial Mom". Turner made irreverence inviting. So its only natural to expect such once again. In this role, Turner's Eileen wants to accept her daughter but she can't bring herself to do it. Puffy and bloated, Eileen sours and croaks. Any lightness is gone. As the film progresses there is the usual Aristotelian mother / daughter showdown and such wheezing and red faced anguish is a bit hard to take, given that Eileen is an Archie Bunker type. I expected a bit more from the wedding scene especially when Eileen gets so worked up she slips and falls in a heap right in the middle of the aisle. Granted, this slapstick is played for laughs but such scenes have happened before in many films. The moment would have delivered more punch if Eileen did something else.

There are the usual confrontations between the other family members. Jason Ritter does a good turn as the son, Frank Jr. And Richard Chamberlain does well as Monsignor Murphy, but Chamberlain does his role on autopilot and even seems to smirk in more than a few scenes. 

This could have been a thoughtful film in the manner  of  the engrossing "Higher Ground" which premiered earlier last year and is due cult, if not classic recognition. That film had a well seasoned dose of existentialism to accompany its very real crisis of faith. And because of this, the characters are more authentic and more humorous. But in "The Perfect Family" there is too much bluster to make the situation unique and Eileen appears maudlin---her face red and glowering---as she sits in her dark house all alone. Even the interior looks unnecessarily surreal, akin to "The Exorcist" lit in high contrast and cloaking shadows. I get the point. Catholicism is intolerant and unyielding. No need to hit me over the head.

Although "The Perfect Family" opts for easy laughs and a pat resolution instead of character meditation, Kathleen Turner makes the film watchable in spite of it all. Seeing her beet red crestfallen face suddenly erupt in smiles is to catch some of her numinous catlike sorcery once again---it is a smile of mischief and danger that could and should well be trademarked as an American institution.

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