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BERLIN — Dysfunctional families in dramatic literature date back to “Oedipus Rex,” so if you’re going to take that route, you’d better have something new to say.
In his film Fireflies in the Garden, Dennis Lee comes up empty. Kids, parents, siblings, an aunt and an estranged wife all bicker and yell, but the noise cancels itself out. The movie is one long argument, tiresome and repetitive, that produces more heat than light. The wonder is that the first-time writer-director rounded up a cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss and Julia Roberts.
The script reportedly knocked around Hollywood for a long time before Senator Entertainment decided to finance it since no one saw a market for Lee’s story. That’s still going to be a problem. Anything starring Roberts stands a chance, but boxoffice in urban adult venues should be modest. The film will probably play better as home entertainment.
A family gathering in a small university town, presumably in the Midwest, takes a tragic turn when a car accident injures family head and professor Charles Taylor (Dafoe) and kills his wife, Lisa (Roberts). Animosity between Charles and his novelist son Michael (Ryan Reynolds), who lives in New York, runs deep so his mother’s death only exacerbates their hostility.
Most of the family travails stem from the basic fact that Charles is a self-absorbed, domineering, abusive jerk. Michael has every reason to dislike him. Indeed in his just finished manuscript, he takes his revenge.
His mother’s sister Jane (Watson) disapproves of Michael’s literary character assassination, but is more absorbed in calming her son, who blames himself for his aunt’s death. To add to the non-merriment, Michael’s estranged and formerly alcoholic wife, Kelly (Moss), shows up for the funeral.
Flashbacks to Michael’s childhood (Cayden Boyd touchingly plays him as a boy) fill you in on the abuse he suffered and how no one, not even his mother, could stop Charles from tormenting his son. Lee’s story purports to be semi-autobiographical, but these petty family quarrels don’t play on the screen. Abuse can be terrible to suffer firsthand, but here it takes on a certain banality. The cause of Charles’ fury at the world is never articulated, nor is it clear why his wife tolerates so much cruelty from her husband.
Michael does make a startling discovery in going through his mom’s things, which adds a melodramatic note that is never thoroughly convincing. A resolution, or at least a truce, is reached at the end that also lacks conviction. It arrives too easily, and you suspect if Michael didn’t live in New York the truce would be a short-lived.
Dafoe never gets a handle on his overbearing character. Similarly, Roberts spends her rather brief screen time trying to pacify other people, her husband, her son and then her sister without ever getting a chance to define who her character is. The movie pretty much wastes Watson, and Moss seems to have dropped in from another movie. Only Reynolds comes off with some dimension and charm as a guy whose affability increases with the distance he puts between himself and his dad.
Filming in and around Austin, Lee makes effective use of his locations and slides between two time periods smoothly. All tech credits are solid.
Senator Entertainment in association with Kulture Machine
Screenwriter-director: Dennis Lee
Producers: Marco Weber, Vanessa Coifman, Suke Chew
Executive producers: Jere Hausfater, Milton Liu
Director of photography: Danny Moder
Production designer: Robert Pearson
Costume designer: Kelle Kutsugeras
Editors: Dede Allen, Robert Brakey
Cast: Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Shannon Lucio, Ioan Gruffudd
Running time — 98 minutes
No MPAA rating
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