Thursday, August 25, 2011

Family, Indie Style: The Family Tree

The Burnetts are like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, with their sex, drugs, and guns. They are just your typical dysfunctional suburbanites who find it much easier to live together after Mom is stricken with amnesia in Vivi Friedman’s The Family Tree (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Even family counselors can’t deal with the Burnetts. Jack, the father, is an emotionally frozen man in a grey flannel suit. His wife Bunnie is an aspiring lunching lady, who is carrying on an affair with the next door neighbor—at least. Son Eric has only one talent, marksmanship, which the Hunter S. Thompson-esque Reverend Diggs encourages, while his sister gets attention acting the part of the high school tramp. They are so caught up in their petty preoccupations, they do not notice the dead body hanging their front yard, the victim of a freak peeping accident. Rockwell had a painting for that too, right?

As usual, Tree presents a clich├ęd stereotype of corporate life and activist Christianity. Particularly problematic is the gang of super-Christian high school enforcers the Burnett son falls in with. At least Diggs is not presented as a bad type, unequivocally condemning their tactics, in between target practice and tokes. One might even argue the film presents thinly disguised NRA members in affectionate, if still caricatured terms.

In truth, Tree is built around a clever gimmick, the amnesiac suddenly interested in being a wife and mother now that she can no longer remember her family’s multitude of shortcomings and disappointments. However, Mark Lisson’s screenplay is so overstuffed with attempts at naughty humor, it is nearly impossible to buy in on an emotional level. Mostly, the film is like a series of gags held together with self-consciously quirky family drama, but to be fair, some of the jokes are funny.

Somehow amid the affected madness, Dermot Mulroney creates a likeable, sympathetic portrait of the emasculated corporate wage slave. As his wife Bunnie, Indie stalwart Hope Davis changes gears quite convincingly as well. Unfortunately, the teenaged cast is rather underwhelming. Still, Gabrielle Anwar entertainingly vamps it up as corporate down-sizer Nina, (looking sultry yet worlds different than she did tangoing with Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman). In a slight bit of type-casting, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks also appears as a busty administrative assistant, but has literally nothing to do.

The Finnish born Friedman keeps Tree moving along at a decent pace, yet it is clear the film has little affection for any aspect of its characters’ lives. Lacking real satirical insight, Tree just delivers inconsistent American Pie style laughs. Somewhat diverting viewing on a lazy afternoon (at most), the middling Tree should wait for cable. For those fired up for its admittedly interesting cast, it opens tomorrow (8/26) in New York at the Village East.