The Family Tree (2011)
★ / ★★★★
The Burnett household is an unhappy one. Jack (Dermot Mulroney) and Bunnie (Hope Davis) are about to get a divorce, Kelly (Britt Robertson) has a reputation of being promiscuous, and Eric (Max Thieriot) has developed a strange fascination with guns. They cannot stand each other so they see a family therapist. Even that fails to work out. When Bunnie hits her head while having an affair with a next-door neighbor (Chi McBride), the doctors’ diagnosis is retrograde amnesia. Remembering only the things right up to her marriage with Jack gives the floundering family a chance to get out of their rut.
“The Family Tree,” written by Mark Lisson and directed by Vivi Friedman, is like watching a very bad soap opera. All the actors rely on exaggeration in hopes of accidentally stumbling on something remotely comedic. It is lazy and mostly painful to sit through because not only is each character deeply unlikable, there is supposed to be an air of irony to them.
In addition, the writer relies on injecting pockets of darkly comic moments in order to keep the material afloat, but it backfires because the characters are paper thin. If anything, the picture is an example of how difficult it really is pull off comedy with edge. Dark comedy requires dimension to allow a convincing exorcism of deeply buried ironies, but the screenplay seems to be only interested in quirks.
Still, there are sensitive moments, like when Kelly sees her father watching an old video of happier times, but such are poorly placed. The aforementioned scene, for example, is preceded by Kelly making fun of her brother for his hypocrisy. He has an obsession with guns and violence but at the same time he devotes himself to God. Instead of finding a way to effectively satirize people who live in suburban America, increasingly desperate and turning a blind eye to bigger problems out there the world, the joke ends up rather trivial and expected.
The four members of the family each face their own battles: Jack evades the advances of his lascivious co-worker (Gabrielle Anwar), Bunnie struggles to get her memory back while keeping a high school jock (Evan Ross), who has a crush on her, at arms length, Kelly catches her history teacher (Selma Blair) having lesbian relations with a student (Madeline Zima) in the girls’ restroom, and Eric develops a friendship with Paul (John Patrick Amedori), a classmate who almost died when he was thrown in a river by religious fanatics.
There are more than a handful of strands for three movies but the way they are presented lacks an engaging flow. The picture is supposed to be about a family, with seemingly little in common, finding proper footing so that they can move on together. Their storylines should have been allowed to pierce through one another. Instead, after we see Jack make a complete fool of himself, it is time to laugh at Bunnie, then Kelly, and finally Eric. It feels too systematic and episodic.
“The Family Tree” is unfocused and uninspired. Everyone is so into themselves, they even fail to notice the rotting corpse hanging from a tree. It is not written sharply enough for the symbolism to be worthy of our time and effort.