Review: The Talent Given Us

The film is a motivational video for the Wagner family and the Wagner family only.

The Talent Given Us
Photo: DaddyW Productions

You will never see anything like The Talent Given Us in your entire life, but I’m not exactly sure it should ever be seen by anyone other than Andrew Wagner. The first-time director casts his entire family in the film, which chronicles his mother and father’s attempts to reconcile their rocky relationship with their three children.

The narrative is ostensibly fictional, but the performances—natural and immediate even when their unbearably shrill—suggest otherwise. This video cheapie starts promisingly enough, with Judy and Allen Wagner going through the motions—or, in Judy’s case, trying to go against the motions—of growing old: Sick with nostalgia (she glows after talking to one of her daughters on the telephone and she begs her husband to watch old home movies on the television), the fabulous Judy begins to resent her husband for not tapping her libido.

But on a cross-country trip to visit Andrew in L.A., Judy, Allen, and daughters Emily and Maggie take turns playing armchair psychologists, sorting through the pieces of their not-so-dysfunctional family life. It’s about here that Talent Given Us, with its nonstop string of semi-ironic but preachy one-liners (“don’t get comfortable in a lie” goes one, “embrace that inner safety” goes another), begins to reveal itself not so much as an experiment in docu-narrative filmmaking but a motivational video for the Wagner family and the Wagner family only.

No matter how compelling and sympathetic Judy and Allen may be as characters or subjects—and they are—Andrew’s sister Emily, who played Doris Pickman on ER and spends much of the film talking about sweaty teenage pussy, body odor, her looming liposuction, her long-ago chronic masturbation, and how Adrian Brody gives her “a major Warsaw ghetto fantasy,” has a way of instantaneously killing the film’s sentimental mood. Curiously, this buzz kill reminds me a lot of my friend who was born and raised in Long Island. He’s kind of fun in small doses, but he’s the last people in the world you would ever want to go on a road trip with.

Score: 
 Cast: Judy Wagner, Allen Wagner, Emily Wagner, Maggie Wagner, Judy Dixon, Billy Wirth  Director: Andrew Wagner  Screenwriter: Andrew Wagner  Distributor: DaddyW Productions  Running Time: 97 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2004  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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