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Kathleen Turner has one of her best screen roles in years in The Perfect Family, the new comedy/drama that recently world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Playing a devout Catholic and suburban mom whose must reconcile her religious beliefs with her own family’s less than perfect behavior, the actress delivers a complex, sympathetic portrayal that–unlike so many cinematic depictions of religious faith–never condescends. Unfortunately, this debut feature by Anne Renton doesn’t quite find the proper tone to convey its heartfelt message.
The opening moments immediately establish Eileen Cleary (Turner) as a mainstay at her local parish and a particular favorite of Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain), who informs her that she’s the front runner for the “Catholic Woman of the Year” award. Unfortunately, he’s also nominated Eileen’s arch rival, Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence), who will clearly go to any ends to snare the coveted prize.
Among the qualifications for the title is a family life that conforms to traditional Catholic beliefs, but Eileen’s comes up a bit short on that count. Her firefighter husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic; her lesbian daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is about to have a baby with her longtime partner Angela (Angelique Cabral); and her son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) has recently left his wife and is romantically involved with an older woman.
At first, the film seems to be aiming for dark satire, perhaps something on the order of Serial Mom, Turner’s collaboration with John Waters. The notion is reinforced by the casting of Chamberlain, who famously played the randy priest in TV’s The Thorn Birds, and by the suggestion that Eileen’s competition with Agnes may lapse into extremes.
But screenwriters Claire V. Riley and Paula Goldberg have more sincere intentions, which is to depict their main character’s gradual acceptance of her loved ones’ lifestyle choices and personal flaws, as well as having to come to terms with her own not unblemished past.
The dialogue features the occasional comic zinger—“I don’t have to think, I’m Catholic,” Eileen insists at one point—but mostly the film aims for a blend of dysfunctional family drama and light comedy that never quite jells.
Fortunately, the well-drawn performances provide some compensation. Turner is deeply sympathetic as the religious matriarch even while providing subtle comic grace notes to the role. The low-key McGrady is highly appealing as the endlessly patient, loving husband, while Ritter and Deschanel are thoroughly believable as the grown children who love their mother despite her oft-expressed disapproval of their actions.
But for all its good intentions, The Perfect Family displays a Lifetime television movie-style tidiness that is ultimately all too predictable. It’s hard not to wish that it had taken a few more chances and explored its certainly relevant themes a little more deeply.
Tribeca Film Festival
Production: Certainty Films, Present Pictures.
Cast: Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter, Richard Chamberlain, Elizabeth Pena, Sharon Lawrence, Michael McGrady.
Director/executive producer: Anne Renton.
Screenwriters: Claire V. Riley, Paula Goldberg.
Producers: Jennifer Rubin, Cora Olson.
Director of photography: Andre Lascaris.
Editor: Christopher Kroll.
Production designer: Megan Hutchison.
Music: Andrew Kaiser.
Not rated, 84 min.
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