Birds of America

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Sundance was strewn with the remains of dysfunctional families this year, and perhaps none was more dysfunctional than the characters in Craig Lucas' "Birds of America." But quirkiness, as it is here, is often just an excuse for eccentric behavior with no real explanation. It's an opportunity for goofy people to parade an assortment of ticks and mannerisms that an audience will presumably find amusing. "Birds of America," unfortunately, is not very convincing or funny, and will have a hard time landing in theaters.

Set in Cheever country of upper-middle class suburban Connecticut, the story involves older brother Morrie (Matthew Perry) and the two siblings, Jay (Ben Foster) and Ida (Ginnifer Goodwin), he raised after his father jumped out of the window of the family house and killed himself. Now a grown up physics professor living with his wife (Lauren Graham), Morrie has never gotten over the trauma and a life of being responsible for others.

So naturally when Jay, a borderline personality who prefers living by himself in the woods, is almost run over by a car after lying down in the street, it's big brother to the rescue. And when Ida, a struggling photographer getting over a bad breakup, comes apart, she goes home too.

Morrie craves nothing more than an orderly life, and his highest goal is to be accepted by his neighbor (Gary Wilmes), who happens to be his boss, and his prissy wife (Hilary Swank), and secure the ultimate symbol of stability: tenure. But having his unstable family under the same roof again upsets everything, and slowly the fabric of Morrie's life starts to unravel.

In predictable film fashion, a sign that things are coming apart is the mandatory pot smoking scene in which Morrie temporarily lets go. And as his life becomes more unsettled, he does things like rollerblading to work, right into his classroom. And the climax of his rebellion is a grand gesture on his neighbor's lawn. No matter that it's not anything anyone would ever do in real life.

The problem here is that the characters' actions don't have the ring of authenticity and seem more designed to get a laugh or tug at the heartstrings, without earning the emotion. You don't really feel anything about these people.

It's not the performances that fail; Perry is actually quite appealing in a low-key way. It's more the premise by writer Elyse Freidman that seems lacking. The film is loaded with bird imagery, and Morrie's father did own a copy of the original Audubon engravings, but the bird connection doesn't resonate. The human species observed here just doesn't get off the ground.

BIRDS OF AMERICA
Plum Pictures and Ideal Partners
Credits:
Director: Craig Lucas
Writer: Elyse Friedman
Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Jana Edelbaum, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray
Executive producers: John Allen, Scott Hanson, Pamela Hirsch, Ed Hart, Bruce Lunsford, Eric Goldman
Director of cinematography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: John Nyomarkay
Music: Ahrin Mishan
Costumes: Heidi Bivens
Editor: Eric Kissack
Cast:
Morrie: Matthew Perry
Betty: Lauren Graham
Jay: Ben Foster
Ida: Ginnifer Goodwin
Laura: Hilary Swank
Paul: Gary Wilmes
Gillian: Zoe Kravitz
Running time -- 89 minutes
No MPAA rating
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