"The Family Tree" -- a movie that seems destined for home video obscurity even as it hits a handful of cinema screens this week -- sets out to answer the question: just how many cloyingly idiosyncratic "quirks," the kind that aim for "American Beauty" profundity but mostly come across as "Desperate Housewives" contrivances, can be stuffed, Thanksgiving-turkey-style, into one independent suburban family comedy? The answer, as given by "The Family Tree?" A whole fucking bunch.
After some clunky narration about how this movie's suburb is just like the suburb you live in – with its share of freaks, weirdos, and hidden perverts – we are treated to an introductory sequence that has our family sitting down for some group therapy. The family dynamics are quickly established, in a shorthand that doesn't suggest surefooted writing or directing as much as the cartoonish over-stylization of your typical primetime sitcom, with the emasculated husband (Dermot Mulroney), domineering wife (Hope Davis), and outsider children (Max Thieriot and Brittany Robertson, two performers who coincidentally have starred in recent, separate Wes Craven joints), a pair of teens would be a lot more believable as outsiders if they weren't so tailor-made-for-the-CW adorable. (The therapist in this sequence is briefly played by Rachel Leigh Cook who is only on screen long enough for you to think, "Hey, whatever happened to Rachel Leigh Cook?") The family bickers back and forth for a few minutes, after which we're treated to a title sequence that appears to have been finished on Final Cut Pro during a long lunch break and scored to a song that prominently uses the word "fuck." The title sequence is actually indicative of the faux provocation that "The Family Tree" often strives for, time and time again.
Only moments later, we see someone climbing a tree to peer into the bedroom window of the husband and wife, so he can get a good lookie-loo while masturbating. He loses his footing and falls, getting tangled in his gear and ultimately hanging himself. It's a jolt of shocking, WTF-worthy tonal misjudgment and if this kind of thing didn't happen every fifteen minutes in "The Family Tree," then it might stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, it's the first in a series of incidents that ripple through the movie on a tide of bad taste and narrative incoherence.
The main thrust of the narrative, in fact, doesn't occur until several sequences later, during a staged breaking-and-entering incident that's been put together for the sexual gratification of the shrewish wife (Davis). What makes this violent rape fantasy even more questionable is that the usually delightful Chi McBride, giving the whole scenario an uneasy racial tinge, plays the lover/burglar. Anyway, during their tryst (at one point he says "Stop – Hammertime," which isn't just outdated and anachronistic but painfully unfunny), she bumps her head, which leaves her with a terrible bout of amnesia! Yes, seriously. No, this isn't a daytime soap opera. It just looks and feels like one.
Since her brain resets itself to the point when she was first married to her husband and, presumably, much happier and less bitchy, their marriage gets a second chance. (Thornier issues like her having to reintroduce herself to her children are quickly glossed over.) But will she find out about his near-affair with a coworker (Gabrielle Anwar), or the lustful thoughts he has about his busty secretary (Christina Hendricks – man, she can do "busty secretary" in her sleep at this point)? What about her affair with their neighbor (McBride) – will that rear its ugly head? And what of her children, one of whom has been taken under the bible-thumping, gun-toting wing of a local preacher (Keith Carradine), the other who has a rotten reputation and has just befriended a crippled lesbian girl (Madeline Zima)?
The bigger question, looming over all of this mess, is: will you care? And the answer to that is a definitive "no." "The Family Tree" is busy with activity but little actually happens, in terms of character arcs or narrative payoff. Supposedly "outrageous" things happen every few minutes, like Hope Davis giving Mulroney a blowjob on a Ferris Wheel in front of their children and most of the townsfolk (risqué!), or a lingerie-prone teacher (Selma Blair) having an affair with the crippled lesbian girl (taboo!), but none of these moments seem genuinely controversial. You can tell that the filmmakers (director Vivi Friedman and writer Mark Lisson) are going for that "underbelly of the American dream" shtick mined so well in movies like Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" or David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," but they clearly lack the creative wherewithal or narrative backbone to actually have anything come across as incisive or probing. Instead, like the dead kid in the tree, the movie hangs around, limp and lifeless and attracting clouds of flies the size of small zeppelins.
If you thought that the knotting of various plot threads in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" was clumsy and tactless, just wait until you see "The Family Tree" (or, in a more likely scenario, come across the movie several years from now on basic cable and idly pause before moving on to a rerun of "Cheaters"), which climaxes in not one but two noisy shoot outs (complete with computer graphics-assisted bullet POV). By this point, the movie has twisted the fulcrum from "wacky" to "absurd," and not in a good way either. It's understandable that a fairly rote family comedy would try to add a little sensationalistic sizzle to something that would otherwise be completely ignorable, but the script was apparently good enough to attract a fine roster of talent (seriously – look at that cast) and you wish, desperately, for them to be doing something else. The movie has a certain amount of zingy, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks energy. But that's about it. Mulroney is a caustically overlooked actor and when he pops up in things like David Fincher's "Zodiac," as a stern, pot-bellied police superior, you're reminded of what a dynamic dramatic talent he is. Here, he's dressed up in 1970s-era oversized glasses and a hillbilly mustache, his look a good metaphor for the movie – styled for on-the-nose weirdness, but evocative of nothing. [D]