The Family Tree really wants to be the next American Beauty (albeit something of a more Looney Tunes version of it). And why not? It’s been 12 years since Kevin Spacey quit his job and almost had sex on the couch with his daughter’s best friend, and no film has really come close to being “the next American Beauty,” so what is there to lose in at least trying?
And The Family Tree definitely tries. Oh, does it try, to the point where it completely wears itself out and just kind of collapses — panting, exhausted and not going anywhere. But even if it doesn’t reach its destination, it’s more than worthy of a “Participant” ribbon (or two), and most certainly gets an “A” for effort — even if, like Brittany Robertson’s embittered teenage daughter character, it had to kind of bribe to get it.
The film chronicles the downward spiral of the Burnett clan, a suburban family consisting of domineering wife/mother Bunnie (Hope Davis), put-upon husband Jack (Dermot Mulroney) and teenage twins Eric (Max Thieriot) and Kelly (Robertson). They’re about to completely self-destruct with their constant bickering and general lack of communication… until Mom hits her head and gets short-term memory loss, mentally transporting her back to the time when she and Jack first got married. Suddenly, the Burnetts are given a second chance, ’cause Mom’s not such a bitch any more.
You kind of know what you’re in for right from the start. The film opens with shots of (somewhat) idyllic suburbia accompanied with trite “My neighborhood is probably just like yours” voice-over. Suddenly, we’re slammed with an extreme close-up of Chi McBride’s giant thrusting ass as he helps Davis commit adultery in the bathroom, which is soon after followed by an opening credit sequence set to a rollicking, confrontational song with a lot of swearing. Cut to a kid in a tree spying on a sleeping Davis and managing to hang himself before he’s able to masturbate and… yeah, it’s trying really hard.
However, exactly what it’s trying to do beyond being “edgy” and “shocking” remains unclear. Like the poor bastard in the tree who isn’t discovered for several days, the film just hangs there, a would-be subversive and, yes, shocking thing that no one’s really noticing. Mark Lisson’s script is scattershot and overreaching, filled with about 23 subplots too many — it’s as if he’s afraid to really focus on the emotional redemption of this family, choosing instead to keep things loud, fussy and frantic by throwing in side stories involving Jack’s would-be mistress (Gabrielle Anwar) and hot secretary (Christina Hendricks, who’s actually quite funny); a lesbian high school teacher (Selma Blair); Eric’s uneasy relationship with a gun-loving priest (Keith Carradine) and a couple of gangbangers (Bow Wow and Jermaine Williams), one of whom answers a phone call from his mother while holding the family hostage.
There’s actually more — a lot more — but none of it goes anywhere. It’s all sketchy and incomplete (indeed, the script seems like it’s a first draft at best) — there’s just no real point to all of this screaming and stomping around. Lisson and director Vivi Friedman (who’s annoyingly fond of sudden, inexplicable close-up inserts of things like people’s mouths) are both working overtime, though it’s never clear what they’re working towards.
However, at least they’re working — the satire (or whatever it is) of The Family Tree might be lazy, but the film’s general work ethic most definitely isn’t. The film is nothing if not energetic, managing to maintain a brisk, surefire pace despite the choppy narrative. And the cast is completely committed to somehow making this thing work — while the quality of the individual performances is uneven, you get a sense that each and every player is giving it his or her all, which goes a long way in at least maintaining a consistent tone throughout (a difficult thing to pull off in a comedy and often taken for granted). Even if the world these people inhabit is fractured, cartoonish and kind of stuck in a loop, they all seem to be at home in it. It’s actually often a pleasure to watch this cast work, particularly Mulroney, forever doomed to be an underrated and underused talent … you’ll just really, really wish they had better material to work with.
So The Family Tree most definitely isn’t “the next American Beauty.” But due to its hardworking and talented cast, it’s earned at least being mentioned in the same sentence as the multi-Oscar winner.