'You Can Choose Your Family': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Jon Pack
Two wives, four children, one dud of a comedy.

Jim Gaffigan plays a man with two sets of wives and kids in Miranda Bailey's feature debut.

A teen discovers that his strict father has a second, happier family in another town in You Can Choose Your Family, the feature debut of director Miranda Bailey and screenwriter Glen Lakin. Standup star Jim Gaffigan, who mines domesticity for laughs so successfully onstage, would seem an ideal choice for a man with twice the responsibilities and one big secret to hide. But Bailey and Lakin give him next to nothing to work with, and the result flops where it should crackle. The comedian's popularity notwithstanding, the pic has little theatrical potential.

Gaffigan's Frank, who runs the family ketchup factory, expects son Philip (Logan Miller) to follow the same dull path. The kind of man who says "I don't expect you to understand" to his wife (Anna Gunn) and forces his kid to have a mock interview at home before applying for a job he knows he'll get, Frank is never going to let Philip go off to NYU. He barely tolerates the boy's guitar playing.

While Dad leaves for one of his regular, extended business trips to Japan (just how big is ketchup there?), Philip sneaks off to a lakeside resort town, intending to spend spring break pursuing the girl who won't give him the time of day back at school. But before he can start humiliating himself, he spies Frank from afar. Assuming Dad's having an affair, he tails him to a nearby house, where he sees a whole family — a loving wife (Samantha Mathis), sporty son (Gage Polchlopek) and a daughter (Isabelle Phillips' Kelly) Philip was flirting with just minutes before.

After Frank leaves, Philip visits the family, pretending to be the son of Dad's best friend Richie (Frank has told both families about this fictional work buddy as part of his coverup routine). He's waiting in the living room when Frank returns, and it's here, about 29 minutes in, that the comedy gets its first (and nearly its only) laugh.

Giving Philip the upper hand over the father who has made his life so unpleasant has promise, but the script soon abandons this, inexplicably having the boy decide he wants to help Frank keep the secret from both his wives. The new partnership in deception is baffling in character terms and turns a reasonably novel comic scenario into a stale one as the men run around trying to patch up emerging holes in the web of lies Dad has constructed. The movie tries out some serious moments between the two characters, as Frank explains how he got in this situation and argues that he had good intentions. Gaffigan is persuasive enough, but the emotions don't land.

While all this is happening, a dangerous attraction is brewing between Philip and Kelly, who doesn't know they're half-siblings and thinks she can make him as cool as he wants to be. (The pic is set in 1992, so that mainly means buying him plaid shirts.) Throw in a criminally misused Alex Karpovsky, as a stoner grown-up enlisted to stand in for the fictional Richie, and you have the ingredients for a lakeside family reunion that nobody, onscreen or in the audience, should want to attend.

Production companies: Cold Iron Pictures, Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Isabelle Phillips, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Alex Karpovsky, Gage Polchlopek, Michelle Hurd
Director: Miranda Bailey
Screenwriter: Glen Lakin
Producers: Karen Kehela Sherwood, Amanda Marshall, Miranda Bailey
Director of photography: Yaron Scharf
Production designer: Javiera Varas
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Editor: Jeffrey M. Werner
Composer: Craig Richey
Casting directors: Susan Paley Abramson, Justine Hempe
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: Peter Trinh

110 minutes