Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Max Thieriot, Brittany Robertson, Selma Blair, Christina Hendricks, Rachael Leigh Cook, Evan Handler, Keith Carradine, Madeline Zima, Jane Seymour, Chi McBride and Bow Wow
Vivi Friedman's directorial debut The Family Tree has floated around Hollywood since it was first shot back in 2008, mostly owing to its less than impressive festival run including the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival. The film has been picked up by Entertainment One for a limited nationwide release opening on August 26th, 2011 with box-office prospects rather slight for this family dysfunction dramedy that serves up dark, farcical humor in abundance.
The film kicks off with the Burnett family gathered around a therapist (Rachael Leigh Cook). The family is comprised of mother/wife Bunnie (Hope Davis), dad/husband Jack (Dermot Mulroney), 17-year-old Eric (Max Thieriot) and his twin sister, Kelly (Britt Robertson). It doesn't take long to realize that this is one seriously dysfunctional family and, in all likelihood, a family beyond repair.
Then, one day, Bunnie is in the middle of yet another mid-day tryst with her next door neighbor (Chi McBride) when she falls, bangs her head and loses her memory. She doesn't remember her dysfunctional family, pathetic marriage or screwed up children. With no negative memories to speak of, Bunnie suddenly grows fond of her husband who, in turn, has received a major promotion at work.
Can everything possibly be alright?
Of course not.
It doesn't take long for the family's dysfunctional history to come back into the picture and to haunt their newly discovered idyllic life, with past relationships, nutzoid teachers, kids with guns, corporate hijinks and a rather unique mother-in-law all combining to cause chaos for the family.
The Family Tree takes family values and drags them through the mud, poking fun at nearly everyone and everything in the process. It's easy to understand how newbie director Vivi Friedman attracted a solid indie cast despite being a first-time filmmaker, with Mark Lisson's script filled with enough bite to make one believe that this would, at the very least, be a top notch indie fest circuit player.
The Family Tree isn't a bad film, but it does try to accomplish way too much in its less than 90 minute running time. Had Friedman and Lisson chosen to focus the film on this quirky, off-kilter family we may very well have had the makings of freakishly dark and funny film. Unfortunately, The Family Tree branches off into so many sub-stories and sub-plots and recognizable cameos that it loses its focus and satisfies far less than it should given the quality cast.
Hope Davis, even in a chaotic film, is simply incapable of giving a bad performance and she doesn't disappoint here. Davis sort of exudes a Parker Posey aura in playing this suddenly attentive wife and mother. While one gets the feeling that she could have served up much more, her performance still works wonders. Dermot Mulroney, Max Thieriot and Britt Robertson aren't really given as much to work with beyond basic caricatures that are occasionally funny.
Actually, it's the film's supporting players who seem to have the most fun here with Keith Carradine and Christina Hendricks leaving a strong impression in relatively brief appearances.
D.P. Joplin Wu's camera work is crisp and clear if not particularly imaginative, while Jesse Benson's production design seems to be striving for a Wes Anderson feeling without ever really getting there.
While its prospects for box-office success are modest at best, The Family Tree should enjoy a decent life on home video courtesy of its familiar cast and storyline. It's the kind of film that you find yourself looking at while choosing videos and thinking "That sounds different." Indeed, it is. While not quite fulfilling the promise of its strong cast, The Family Tree warrants consideration on the basic of Hope Davis's strong performance and its over-the-edge, if convoluted, humor that skewers the contemporary family with sheer and utter delight.
© Written by Richard Propes
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Richard Propes, The Independent Critic