'Perfect Family': Flawed but Forgivable
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There's a noteworthy contrast at the heart of "The Perfect Family," which follows devout Catholic mother and wife Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner). Eileen busily plate-spins as her local diocese nominates her for honors for her church work -- which will require home visits and letters from her family. Meanwhile, her daughter, Shannon (Emily Deschanel), is not only coming out of the closet, but also is five months pregnant, plus getting married to her partner in two weeks' time.
Eileen, a devout, old-school Catholic and a little proud, can't wrap her head or soul around her daughter's life, and thus tries to keep the reality of her complicated life under wraps so she can look more suited to one of the Catholic Church's highest forms of recognition. The question is what it'll cost her. These are big issues -- faith and family, scripture and our secular age -- and at the same time, the film's also full of broad comedy moments with plucked plucky strings on the soundtrack, like the tense Eileen hunched over her steering wheel driving 25 on the L.A. freeway.
From the start, this is a centerpiece for Turner, and she excels: Eileen is a fully realized character, with flaws and graces, possessed of heavenly virtues and earthly qualities. But at the same time, the film's an ensemble: Turner's part of a vital group of actors who give as good as they get. Deschanel, liberated from the small-screen crime fighting of her day job on "Bones," plays scenes with strength, while Jason Ritter, as Turner's unshaven, slightly goofy son, also goes for loud laughs and quiet moments. Elizabeth Peña connects and culture-clashes as the mom of Angelique Cabral, Deschanel's partner, and Richard Chamberlain (a sly joke in itself) is a smoothie priest. And veteran character actor Michael McGrady is impressive as Turner's in-recovery fireman husband.
So if the film tips its hand a bit too firmly -- especially in big-conflict scenes, like those with people issuing soap-opera imperatives like "You have to leave!" -- credit must still go to director Anne Renton and co-writers Claire V. Riley and Paula Goldberg for giving their actors situations to explore and lives to live. "The Perfect Family" occasionally feels like it's verging on "Very Special Episode" territory with all of its huge issues. Still, I think, compared to the bland lifelessness of most big-studio drama, where actual conflicts and real discussion about faith and sexuality and class and religion so rarely happen in the name of instead offering predigested entertainment, that's preferred. (On a personal note, I was perhaps able to sympathize with Turner's Eileen because she was so very much like my own late mother, a Catholic whose devotion was expressed in both powerful community service and laser-precise needlepoint.)
Attractively shot in sunny Glendale, Calif., the film somehow pulls off having both luster and gravitas, with a brisk 84-minute running time never outstaying its welcome but still giving us time to know even smaller characters. The ending is predictable: Think Lifetime Channel, not Sundance Channel, and be ready to have your heart warmed. Yet for the most part, I found myself wondering what was going to happen next and interested in what these characters were going through. "The Perfect Family" winds up demonstrating the same aspirations as Eileen herself, in the end: Hardly perfect, but definitely trying to be good.
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.