'Peep World': Look Away From This Dysfunction
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Imagine if the roster of the New York Yankees walked out to take the field only to find a T-ball setup at home plate with a whiffle ball perched atop it. "Peep World" is a bit like the cinematic equivalent of that. Its cast is exemplary -- Michael C. Hall, Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Ron Rifkin, Kate Mara, Taraji P. Henson and the always-great Stephen Tobolowsky -- but Barry Blaustein's direction of Peter Himmelstein's script never gives its cast the room or resources to truly swing for the fences like you know they can. You can feel the cast and crew trying to combine snappy post-modern family-saga absurdity (think "Arrested Development" or "The Royal Tenenbaums") with classically scathing familial discord (think Irving or Updike or Roth). Instead, though, the film's so flat and sour that when the whole cast are gathered together around a communal dinner table, all you want to do is escape the acid, claustrophobic rancor of its unpleasantness.
The Meyerowitz family -- eldest Jack (Hall), next-in-line Joel (Wilson), daughter Cheri (Silverman) and youngest Nathan (Ben Schwartz) -- are gathering for the 70th birthday of their father, Henry (Rifkin). A stern and solemn presence and construction mogul, Henry would, it is implied, normally make any dinner unpleasant -- Rifkin, in one of the film's funnier moments of physical comedy, depicts how Henry even eats angrily. Making things even worse is that fact that Nathan has recently published a novel -- which then became a best-seller-- called "Peep World," which contains more than a few not-so-veiled references to the Meyerowitz family's real lives and real secrets. Some of his siblings are taking Nathan's writing to heart; at least one of his siblings is taking Nathan to court.
Writers, as Joan Didion pointed out with her usual ice-cold concision and precision, are always selling someone out. As Blaustein beats this point to death, we see the Meyerowitz family fight and fracture in the hours leading up to, and in the hours of, their birthday dinner. Jack's architecture business is failing, with him finding solace in low-rent porn (see title) as his pregnant wife (Judy Greer) mutters obscenities at him from the depths of her dreams. Joel, an abject failure, owes money to a group of shady creditors with only the love of his girlfriend (Henson) as an anchor in his post-rehab life. Cheri's a failed actress and permanent therapy victim with a non-sexual relationship with a Jew for Jesus (Tobolowsky) as comfort and torment to them both. And Nathan is harassing a publicity assistant (Mara) on his book tour's stop in L.A. while, in between, getting painful and unnecessary treatments for erectile dysfunction.
Every unhappy family is unique, to be sure, but not every unhappy family is interesting. Blaustein directs with a light hand -- shot on the Red digital camera, "Peep World" is a great example of how the lower cost and flexibility of digital video can help nurture and foster film projects that, in fact, probably deserved to die in utero. Blaustein has stated for the record that he didn't have final cut -- he noted at the Austin Film Festival in 2010 that, among other things, the narration provided by Lewis Black was not in his vision of the film -- but it is hard to think that this bad, botched broth's first and biggest problem was too many cooks.
At one point, Henson looks askance at the feuding Meyerowitz family and asks, "All this over a book? I have cousins who shot each other, and they got over it." It's a funny line (even if it reinforces the film's myth of L.A. as a world of wealthy whites and black and Latino gardener and gangster under-humans), and it cuts to the heart of what audience members will probably be thinking: Why should I care about the small, selfish things these small, selfish characters care about? The previously mentioned "Arrested Development" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" may have had squabbling, vain and insecure families, but they also took care to give each of those characters some small moment of decency and kindness so that we could manage to care about them even as we laughed at their vanity and travails. Here, the absence of those moments -- and the smug, sealed stale-air stink of the film's dedication to skewering every single character -- means there are no cracks in "Peep World" to let even a little light in so that we might really see these characters instead of just glimpsing their shadows in the dimness.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.