Similar to the dread of attending a family reunion, star-studded ensembles like “The Family Tree” always make me cringe, but fill me with the curiosity that I’ll be wrong in generalizing them for the awkward time killers they are.
“The Family Tree” featuring the directing debut of Vivi Friedman has plenty of “I know him/her from…” moments that are the highlight in this dysfunctional black comedy about a family given a second chance, which is more than they deserve.
The movie opens with the Burnett clan in family counseling which quickly disintegrates with even the counselor tiring of them. The audience wishes they’d taken her cue as we meet Jack Burnett (Dermot Mulroney) as a boring head of a typical suburban family. His lovely wife Bunnie (Hope Davis) is all for charitable causes providing one of them doesn’t include her husband in the bedroom. Their children consist of 17-year-old twins Kelly (Brittany Robertson) and Eric (Max Theriot), both seeking attention that their parents are too busy to give. So, Kelly acts out by appearing to be a badass lolita, who’s not afraid to toss off her shirt at the breakfast table. Eric just wants to be the gun toting Christian zealot who can’t seem to recall a single bible verse.
Things take a turn for the odd when a role playing tryst between Bunnie and neighbor Simon (Chi McBride) ends in a trip to the emergency room and Bunnie with a case of amnesia. Not only does she not remember her children, but she forgets how bad her marriage was. Jack finally gets the old Bunnie back, the one he adored before lusting after co-worker Nina (Gabrielle Anwar) and secretary Alicia (Christina Hendricks). Will he ignore the past and try to save his marriage? Will the family find out what really smells in the front yard? How long will the audience care?
This movie has enough A and B level starpower to get you into your seats and most of it is misused. Having Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) as the buxom secretary and the object of desire for Jack is just a waste of her talents. She’s not the only one who doesn’t get to shine here. The story is best suited for TV, whether as a drama or as a sitcom. You almost wish the producers had watched the first couple seasons of “Soap” or a Woody Allen film to get an idea as to how this can actually work. The concept of a family tearing at the seams and being given a second chance is an interesting premise, but the characters are far too detached to seem like any kind of family. You don’t just wonder if Bunnie and Jack will divorce, but if maybe the entire family wouldn’t be better if they all divorced.
So many topics ranging from gun rights and teen drug use to lesbian teachers are put on the table and passed over with barely enough time to care. It’s a shame, because had they reined in this movie, it could’ve been something great. “The Family Tree” never seems sure whether it’s satire or a serious commentary about marriages and how much work goes into saving them. Director Vivi Friedman deserves kudos for assembling a cast with such a rich pedigree, but in her next outing, she should learn how to use them.
The Family Tree – MPAA Rated R for sexual situations and profanity. Running time: 95 minutes. In limited release.