With Family Tree, Christopher Guest refurbishes the often tedious stunted-male coming-of-age scenario with his distinct, gently despairing, satiric stylings. The troubled dude in this case is Londoner Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), a single, recently unemployed insurance claims adjuster…of sorts (he has an odd way of describing his profession). We learn in the first few minutes that Tom, understandably down in the dumps, has been floating through life for the last six months in a numb stasis. His sister, Bea (a side-splitting Nina Conti), and his best friend, Pete (Tom Bennett), try to nudge Tom back into action with the usual self- affirming clichés, but to little avail.
One of Tom’s obvious problems, which isn’t uncommon in this sort of depressed, not-quite-young-anymore guy, is that he’s clearly very intelligent, and capable of insidiously rationalizing his floundering to himself and others in a variety of fashions. For that reason, Tom’s also resistant to the feel-good platitudes that might be seductive, and thus encouraging, to a truly desperate, more gullible person. His response to Bea, when she asks him how much more brooding he might still be capable of indulging, is revealingly deflective in its matter-of-factness: “Six more months, at least.”
These are of the kinds of moments at which Guest excels; over the last few decades, he’s just about mastered the art of the funny, fleetingly devastating gag. His approach dries this brand of coming-of-age story of its often unpleasant justification of the hero’s self-entitlement; he never holds Tom up over his other characters as a snobbish Holden Caufieldish barometer of truth who’s destined to expose everyone else’s allegiance to middle-class phoniness.
Tom is likeable because O’Dowd allows us to see that the character’s aware of his self-pity and actively at war with it, and the gags often spring from his inability to entirely suppress that pity or the pain and turmoil it indicates. The primary difference between Tom and his close circle of friends and family—which also includes his father, Keith (the reliably superb Michael McKean), and neighbor, Mr. Pfister (co-creator/co-writer Jim Piddock)—is that their pain is fainter than his because they’re old hands at living with disappointment, having learned to channel it into a variety of willed eccentricities that would be jarringly broad and unbelievable in the hands of a producer lacking Guest’s confidence or compassion.
Family Tree is driven by a presiding story arc that’s appealingly simple. Guest gets most the exposition entirely out of the way within roughly 10 minutes of the first episode: Tom inherits a trunk of odds and ends from a barely known great-aunt, which spurs him to go about uncovering a variety of truths about his distant relatives to the resounding indifference of his father and sister. Each episode is more or less structured, logically, as a mystery of the week and, unsurprising if you’re a fan of Guest’s films, the family members are all revealed to be weirdos, which gradually deflates Tom’s fantasies that he might be anyone other than a normal guy with essentially everyday problems. Like the characters who occupy Guest’s best work, particularly A Mighty Wind, Tom and his friends have real stature, and the jokes often gracefully comment on their yearning to puncture the bubbles of their own self-concern to connect to others.