‘The Perfect Family’: Painfully imperfect

May 4, 2012

Don’t trust the trailers for Anne Renton’s “The Perfect Family.”

They make it look like an irreverent, iconoclastic satire, one that attacks hypocrisy among the pious – like something from the Farrelly brothers or, perhaps, John Waters. Oh wait – Waters already made that movie with Turner and called it “Serial Mom.” And it was a lot more interesting than this alleged comedy.

In fact, “The Perfect Family” is dramatic – when it isn’t dull and obvious. While there’s fodder here for a lampoon, Renton, working from a script by Paula Goldberg and Claire Riley, prefers the Lifetime-movie model.

Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, who discovers at the beginning of the film that her local monsignor (Richard Chamberlain – wow) has nominated her for a prestigious award: Catholic Woman of the Year. Her only competition is her arch-rival, Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence).

Agnes is holier-than-thou and hoity-toity, setting up a potential cat-fight (or perhaps Cath-fight) that never materializes. Indeed, there are so many possibilities for barbs and jabs that never come to fruition that you start writing your own script in your head as you watch.

Because, you see, all is not well in the Cleary household. Even as Eileen is basking in the glow of her nomination, bombshells are about to go off at the Cleary dinner table.

Eileen’s daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) announces that not only is she five months pregnant through artificial insemination – but she’s going to marry her significant other, a woman named Angela. And Eileen’s son, Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter), has decided that he’s unhappy in his marriage and is leaving his wife and two kids for the woman he really loves, a local beautician.

You can see where this is headed: It’s the perfect trappings for farcical obfuscation and more. Think “La Cage aux Folles” and the like. Except it’s not: “The Perfect Family” instead turns into a didactic lesson on accepting the people you love for who they are.

Turner is a solid actor and she and the rest of the cast give honest, real performances. But once it becomes clear where this is headed – Eileen’s crisis of conscience at rejecting her children in pursuit of an award from a church that also denies the legitimacy of their choices – there’s no salvaging this earnest film.

Not that the message of the film isn’t a righteous one in the face of massive self-righteousness from a deeply flawed institution. And it’s probably not Renton’s fault that the film is being marketed as a yuk-fest. But “The Perfect Family” is a sober little drama that’s not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination – or not a very funny one.

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