Having the far from goody-goody Kathleen Turner play a holier-than-thou mother bent on winning a devout church title is an inherently hilarious premise. But instead of playing off of the camp possibilities of that bit of unbelievable casting, as John Waters did in Serial Mom, director Anne Renton turns The Perfect Family into an anodyne tale of family-centered acceptance that’s neither comical when it wants to be nor touching when it strives for pathos.
Eileen (Turner) has her work cut out for her in the running to win the Catholic Woman of the Year Award: Her daughter has just officially come out as a pregnant lesbian, her son has been hitting the bottle after getting divorced, and her alcoholic husband is about to leave her. It thus becomes a full-time job having to craft an image of perfection to mask the dysfunction within. While we all know, through cinema (from Ingmar Bergman to Todd Solondz) or our own life experiences, that the perfect family is really the fucked-up family in really convincing “perfect family” drag, the film thinks it’s saying something new. There’s talk of lesbian “lifestyles,” mothers running away in horror at a gay kiss, and overtly spelled-out lines like “What is it about my life that you find so reprehensible?” That’s when Turner isn’t walking into a lesbian apartment for the first time, turning up her nose at the books she finds inside it (The Butch Cook Book, even though both lesbians here are immaculately lipstick). It all feels very dull and anachronistically naïve.
For one brief moment, in a relatively great scene when Eileen’s husband (Michael McGrady) wants to leave her because she’s just lied to a visiting bishop about their daughter being straight, there’s a sense of gravitas to the film. Her resentment that no matter what alcohol-fueled drama her husband ever pulled she never once considered leaving him, and yet that’s the first thing he does when he gets upset, feels rather believable. But we’re quickly back to “humor-triggering lesbian situations and how sweet straight people are when they finally accept them” territory.