Film Review: The Family Tree

This black comedy about a dysfunctional family strikes out on all counts: originality, wit and viewer tolerance.

Meet the Burnetts: Bunnie (Hope Davis), coldly upscale and obsessed with her posh charity work; her utterly whipped husband Jack (Dermot Mulroney), and their alienated kids, junior slut-in-training Kelly (Britt Robertson) and Eric (Max Thieriot), who is unfortunately into both guns and the Bible.

Bunnie, of course, has a secret life, trysting kinkily with her African-American next-door neighbor Simon (Chi McBride), but when he bangs her a tad too hard and she contracts amnesia, the dysfunction only increases. Eric and Kelly make weird new friends in the respective forms of Paul (John Patrick Amedori), a mohawked pothead and seeming representative of everything Eric is against, and crippled lesbian classmate Mitzi (Madeline Zima), who is involved with their history teacher, Ms. Delbo (Selma Blair), but kind of loves Eric too.

Got all that? No? No matter. No film genre fails as abysmally as black comedy—when they’re bad, they’re not just unfunny, they’re offensive. Unfortunately, Vivi Friedman’s The Family Tree qualifies as such, and feels just wrong from its very first outrage (a boy accidentally hanging himself while trying to sneak a peep at his foxy neighbor). Friedman obviously had a fierce desire to mine the same territory as that overrated suburban family epic, American Beauty, but her film simply cannot compare to past masterpieces of black comedy: the wit and winsome charm of Harold and Maude; the bravura cheekiness of Where’s Poppa?, and all those other 1960s-70s farces featuring the genre’s ultimate muse, Ruth Gordon, who also dipped her wrinkled toe into the wild, dark waters of Lord Love a Duck, Inside Daisy Clover and Rosemary’s Baby.

Friedman tries to pointedly attack such timeworn targets as the hypocrisy of organized religion, sexual identity, domestic repression, the handicapped, you name it, but nothing here feels particularly fresh or insightful. An early scene in which the entire Burnett clan suddenly attack their family therapist might have been funnier, had this not been done so much better in Ted Demme’s infinitely superior The Ref. You can sense Friedman’s itch to be oh-so edgy, but scenes like the one in which Davis, one of the whitest actresses alive, slaps the crap out of a young black man professing to be in love with her are way off, and repugnant to boot. Meanwhile, that hapless Peeping Tom corpse in the tree keeps tiresomely swinging there, undetected until its very predictable involvement in a wacky denouement.

The actors don’t so much give performances as merely move gamely around like hapless pawns in a very misguided game. Mulroney doesn’t have quite the heft necessary to be an affecting, power-challenged patriarch; Keith Carradine phones in eccentricity as Eric’s preacher mentor (who—surprise!—also likes reefer); Gabrielle Anwar is Jack’s cold bitch of a boss; Bow Wow and Jermaine Williams are a pair of woefully clichéd ghetto thugs (all the black characters here are conceptual dimwits, there for easy laughs which never come); a wasted Christina Hendricks merely shows off her two most salient features as Jack’s beyond-nubile secretary; and Blair, reeling drunkenly, presents the saddest portrait of an unrequitedly-in-love lesbian schoolteacher since Estelle Parsons in Rachel, Rachel.