Vivi Friedman’s The Family Tree opens as yet another movie in which the audience is encouraged to laugh at a dysfunctional family whose self-consciously quirky sitcom eccentricities are meant to somehow reflect something universal about All of Us. There’s the broadly clueless, emasculated businessman, Jack Burnett (Dermot Mulroney), who’s married to the shrewish, bored, hyper, and hypocritical wife, Bunnie (Hope Davis). Jack and Bunnie have, of course, produced two predictably aloof and dissatisfied children, Kelly (Brittany Robertson), the super-blond tart who feigns promiscuity, and Eric (Max Thieriot), a goody-goody struggling to persuade his family to embrace the Bible. Taken together, the Burnett clan manages to encompass virtually every cliché of any dramedy made in the last decade that has garnered or hoped to garner Oscar buzz, from American Beauty to Smart People to Little Miss Sunshine.
The first scene, accompanied by de rigeur narration as the Burnett clan effectively alienates a therapist played by the admittedly rather comely Rachel Leigh Cook, had me checking the running time to see how much of this I had to endure, but The Family Tree, admittedly a terrible movie, quickly evolves into an ambitious and somewhat interesting terrible movie. After a few of the usually contrived ironies (Bunnie is a charity aficionado ironically disinterested in her kids, Eric is a Jesus freak with a jones for guns, etc.), the film introduces not one, but two premises for potentially brilliant and topical farce.
It’s soon revealed that Bunnie is having an affair with her neighbor, Simon (Chi McBride), a large, sexually charismatic black man whom she likes to pretend is a burglar raping her. During their most recent session, Bunnie hits her head, triggering amnesia that blocks out memories of most everything that’s happened since she first married Jack—a development that’s irresistibly loaded with the potential for satire for an American generation that prides itself in properly feigning progress in racial understanding. When Simon comes to visit Bunnie, who’s hospitalized for injuries that the doctors are investigating as indications of rape, you wonder if the film is daring enough to explore a scenario in which Simon is persecuted for a crime in which his victim was fully complacent. You also can’t help but wonder if the film will explore the dynamics of a faded marriage where one of the parties has suddenly forgotten the last 15 years of said fade.
But these ideas are wasted, basically excuses for a few trite race and religion jokes to goose up what’s mostly a sentimental story of a dysfunctional family suddenly and magically learning to function again—which is too bad considering the unusually strong and interesting cast. Mulroney, often stuck playing a bland housewife’s idea of hunk incarnate, has shown potential (see his bit, but memorable, part in Zodiac). Davis, a terrific actress, is promising initially, but the amnesia gimmick dulls the terse sexuality of her presence—which is used against her cruelly here anyway, but, to the film’s credit, it’s at least nice to see a film that finally understands that she is, in fact, sexy. And it’s also nice to see the underused McBride as someone other than an über-ethical voice of conscience.
The younger actors playing the teens are also often stunningly promising. Thieriot finds something nearly human in his conflicted stereotype, while John Patrick Amedori, as the troubled teen he befriends, exudes a confidence and presence that’s ripe for major discovery (he’d make a wonderful Joey Berglund for any filmmaker with the cojones to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). Robertson and Madeline Zima are just as fine, managing to deliver their lines with a curt, clipped assurance that routinely transcends the bad dialogue they’re given. The standout, though, is Bow Wow, who’s often startling playing the tired stereotype of the black hustler who’s ironically white in upbringing—a joke that’s offensive for a number of reasons.
Sadly, The Family Tree squanders all this promise for the usual trite, bluntly written, and poorly staged testaments to love and family. Who needs that when you have a cast this game? A truly troubled family isn’t, at the very least, this deadly dull.