BLOGS

The Family Tree: Not An American Beauty

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 3:58 pm
<i>The Family Tree</i>: Not An American Beauty

Sam Mendes and Alan Ball's 1999 Oscar winner American Beauty has a lot of sins to answer for, one of which is the subsequent existence of movies like The Family Tree. Like its predecessor, this irritating "ain't the suburbs wacky?" dark comedy tells the story of a dysfunctional family that's made up of the tightly-wound, sex-obsessed fortysomething patriarch Jack (Dermot Mulroney), his bitchy wife Bunnie (Hope Davis) and their snarky adolescent daughter Kelly (Brittany Robertson). There's even a religious nut in the form of their teenage son Eric (Max Thieriot), who has recently found God and now spends much of his time shooting the shit (as well as a few firearms) with his pastor, Reverend Diggs (Keith Carridine). It's all so familiar that while watching the film, you may feel as if you stepped into a time machine that's transported you back to that pre-iPod, pre-Netflix era of the late '90s.

After spending fifteen minutes successfully showing us how insufferable this family is, the film's plot kicks into gear when, in the middle of a role-playing sex game with her neighbor Simon (Chi McBride, one of many prominent actors Vivi Friedman managed to recruit for this thing), Bunnie conks her head and wakes up with a mild case of amnesia. She remembers who she is and who her husband is, but her memory stops right after they tied the knot, which means their kids are strangers to her. On the positive side, those early years of wedded bliss were the last time she and Jack were truly happy together. The fact that she's mentally trapped in that past actually ends reigniting their stalled relationship. With an adoring wife to come home to, Jack no longer needs to fantasize about his sexy co-worker (Christina Hendricks, taking a break from playing a buxom secretary on Mad Men by playing... a buxom secretary).

Meanwhile, their children wrestle with the typical problems that confront teenagers in these kinds of movies; Kelly befriends a self-described lesbian that's having an affair with a female teacher (Selma Blair) while Eric falls in with a bad crowd of fellow zealots who take it upon themselves to dish out God's vengeance on anyone that commits a sin like smoking a joint. In another random subplot, Simon is targeted by two young punks (one of whom is played by The Artist Formerly Known as Lil' Bow Wow, a.k.a. Shad Moss) that intend to rob him for reasons that are never entirely clear. And did I mention the corpse of the peeping Tom that's stuck in the family's front-yard tree? No? Well, despite being dead, he's in the mix too.

The script for The Family Tree is credited to Mark Lisson, who has a long history as a television writer, penning teleplays for such series as Bones, M.A.N.T.I.S. and, going way back, Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The film often has the look and feel of a TV movie, both due to director Friedman's distinctly small-screen eye for composition and because of Lisson's sitcom-like characterizations. Davis could play a role like Bunnie in her sleep, Mulroney often seems to be asleep and the rest of the overqualified supporting cast -- which also includes Gabrielle Anwar and Rachel Leigh Cook -- just appears relieved that their screentime is limited. Somewhere Alan Ball is tightly clutching his Oscar, thrilled that he got his own tale of suburban dysfunction into theaters before moviegoers got wise to this kind of bogus picture.

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