‘The Perfect Family’ Navigates the Unavoidable Imperfections of Family, Faith and First-time Directors
The Perfect Family stars Kathleen Turner as a devout Catholic woman with two grown children. She prays before every meal, delivers food to elderly residents unable to leave their homes, and even assists Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) with Communion during Mass. She couldn’t be more thrilled when she discovers she’s been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year, but when she’s told the judges need to evaluate her entire family before making their decision she moves into overdrive to ensure they resemble nothing less than the perfect Catholic family.
But with a son (Jason Ritter) who’s left his wife and kids for the bed of another woman, a daughter (Emily Deschanel) who’s in a lesbian relationship, and a husband who’s a recovering alcoholic, winning this major award isn’t going to be easy. Eileen sets out to correct these “wrongs” and discovers some truths along the way…truths that are tied up neatly with simplistic, sitcom-colored ribbons and bows but that still manage touch the heart.
“I don’t have to think. I’m a Catholic!”
Change is (or at least should be) central to any film’s lead characters as part of a narrative that helps move them from who they are to who they become. It doesn’t always need to be a major change, but they should be a somewhat different person at story’s end than they were at the beginning. And while that change is important, it ideally needs to be an earned and natural progression if it’s to be believably sincere.
Eileen never gets truly ugly with her opinion on homosexuality, this is a comedy after all, but she’s clearly 100% against the very idea of her daughter being with another woman. She cuts herself off from Shannon, at least temporarily, and doesn’t invite her home for the bishop’s evaluation visit. She’s ashamed and disgusted, but more than that she’s embarrassed and fearful as to what others will think.
She’s so busy trying to alter and fix everyone else that she never stops to take stock and realize that maybe it’s her attitude that’s truly broken. That core message and its predictable outcome are handled with all the subtlety of a hammer nailing flesh to a cross, and it keeps the film from ever achieving a deeper awareness or commentary.
Thankfully, the film is graced with talented actors throughout who make the most of an unsurprising central drama. Turner’s cinematic appearances have been few and far between over the last decade (her recent work as Sue Collini on Showtime’s Californication was great, bawdy fun), but she shows here that she still has some solid acting chops as a woman torn between her family and her faith. Her comedic timing both verbally and via facial expressions is behind many of the film’s chuckles, but she also nails shifting gears towards the drama of a conflicted Catholic. When her family jokes that her biggest sin was mistaking a fish stick for a corn dog on a Friday, she softly reveals she has far worse sins than that in her past.
Deschanel and Ritter are both fine, while others like Chamberlain and Sharon Lawrence (as Eileen’s main competition for the award) feel underwritten and underused. Michael McGrady does excellent work, though, as Eileen’s recovering alcoholic husband Frank whose patience with his wife’s closed mind may be wearing thin.
The Perfect Family is an example of the parts being greater than the whole. Not all the parts mind you as the script (by Paula Goldberg and Claire Riley) and direction (by Anne Renton) often feel tentative in their effort to make their point. They do manage to create enough of a family here though that the cast is able to take it the rest of the way meaning that even as you know what must and will happen the emotional impact is both honest and familiar. After all, we’ve all had family members we wish we could have changed at one point or another.
The Upside: Good performances; makes its case without demonizing the Catholic Church; mellow but effective soundtrack.
The Downside: Story may be too simple and clear-cut; Eileen’s attitude change feels fairly abrupt.
On the Side: The film hits theaters just a day after President Obama showed his support for gay marriage. It’s unintentionally perfect timing.