Meet the Burnetts. The first family to ever get fired by their own therapist. Mom Bunnie puts together charity events to raise money for terminal diseases (but she hates her entire family and presumably most of humanity). Dad Jack is a middle class loser and his ennui and dissatisfaction are not unique or special or sympathetic (neither is Dermot Mulroney in the role). Daughter Kelly wears tight clothes and chain-smokes and digs a dude with a mohawk (basically, she’s a teenager, imagine the horror). Son Eric is a gun-obsessed Christian who spends his free time punishing those who behave in un-Christian ways (which doesn’t seem very Christian, now does it). The Burnetts of The Family Tree are not happy. But they’re about to be.
A wacky home accident leaves Bunnie (Hope Davis) with amnesia, mentally catapulting her back to when she and Jack were first married, and that Bunnie was much better at being a wife. That Bunnie cooks and cleans and wears pretty clothes and cares about people. She’s a better Bunnie, and that makes for better Burnetts. Why the Burnetts were unhappy to begin with is unclear – but it must have been Bunnie’s fault.
We know old Bunnie was a bad wife because she didn’t cook anymore. We know old Bunnie was a bad mother because she called Kelly (a plucky Brittany Robertson) a slut – to her face. We know old Jack was a bad husband because he ogled other women. We know old Jack was a bad father because he called Eric (an effectively off-kilter Max Thieriot) a weirdo – to his face. These shallow moments of “characterization” are all we’re really given in order to judge the Burnetts’ elder. Forgive me if I don’t give a flying youknowwhat if they end up happy by film’s end.
It’s also important to note that, though the film hinges on Bunnie’s amnesia, absolutely no attention is paid to the medical repercussions of Bunnie’s brain state. She’s simply released back into the care of her husband, with no further instructions on how to deal with what’s befallen her memories and sense of self. More attention is paid to medical veracity in soap operas. This, however, does result in the most interesting part of the entire film – a three minute sequence in which Bunnie slowly realizes how much she’s changed, and just how much the Bunnie of the past would hate the Bunnie she’s become. But instead of Bunnie plumbing the depths of why she’s become such a miserable woman (one who “hates” salad and “loves” diseases), she instead turns to fashion to make herself feel better. Damn internal changes, as long as Bunnie is turned out in sunny clothes with perfect hair, all will be well. I wonder if that’s not what got Bunnie into this mess to begin with (but we’ll never know that for sure, will we?).
The production value and overall feel of the film is closer to that of a mid-season replacement sitcom which, oddly enough, the film would likely work as. The core of the film’s plot is not so bad, but the film seeks to show growth and progression better suited for a longer arc, not a ninety minute wreck of a motion picture. Even the film’s opening credits and foul-mouthed theme song smack of second rate sitcom.
The Family Tree is also crammed with all manner of subplots that are clearly meant to be shocking and provocative – a same-sex relationship between teacher and student! Gun-toting Christians who are also total assholes! A main character who apparently engaged in affairs with both a father and his teenage son! Sexual harassment in the workplace! Someone with a leg brace! – but none of them have even an ounce of honesty or credibility. And that’s not to say anything about the dead pervert hanging from the largest tree in the Burnetts’ front yard.
The film’s sitcom feel is not helped by the number of recognizable names that make up the film’s supporting cast. It’s easy to imagine them as sweeps week guest stars on The Family Tree As Sitcom – this week, Jane Seymour as grandma! Next week, Christina Hendricks as (you won’t believe this) a busty, put-upon office worker! As easy as it is to imagine that alternate reality, it’s conversely almost impossible to imagine why anyone signed up for this film (you too, Keith Carradine? And you, Gabrielle Anwar? Bow Wow! Even you are better than this!).
The film’s third act is a mess of plots and subplots and characters and supporting characters getting slammed and crammed together like they’ve been tossed into some sort of cinematic trash compactor. The penultimate scene of The Family Tree is reminiscent of one of the final scenes of, oddly enough, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with everyone (accidentally) gathering in the Burnetts’ living room to (accidentally) hash out all of the terrible things they’ve (accidentally) done to each other. Oh, ha ha, imagine the hijinks that will ensue! Sadly, it’s not the last time the entire group will gather together for maximum wackiness, they still need to attend no less than three more events to ensure that every loose end is tied up, gussied up with a slice of misdirection and a slash of some of the worst CGI put on screen in the last five or so years.
Director Vivi Friedman and writer Mark Lisson have a reasonably talented cast and a kernel of a compelling idea, but The Family Tree is so outrageously bad, so stunningly tone-deaf, that even those potential positives are shunted aside in favor of what, wackiness? A poor use of the Chekhov’s gun concept? “Shocking” subplots that feel like the misplaced pages of a Gossip Girl script? Happy families may all be alike, but the Burnetts are unhappy in their own way – a way that certainly didn’t need a film made about it.
The Upside: The three minutes when Davis is actually given something genuine to do? I guess? Maybe?
The Down Side: The rest of it.
On the Side: It’s the only film you’ll see this year that features the youngest daughter from The Nanny as an inexplicably leg-braced teen who dresses like a ragdoll and makes some questionable relationship choices.