Film Review: Mighty Fine

Mighty bad.

The year is 1974 and the Fine family is relocating from Brooklyn to New Orleans. Papa Joe (Chazz Palminteri) wants a new life for his clan, closer to his garment company’s factory. Wife Stella (Andie MacDowell), who escaped from the Holocaust as a child, and one of his teenage daughters, Natalie (Jodelle Ferland), are happy about the change, but Maddie (Rainey Qualley), his other girl, is distraught about having to leave school in her popular senior year to face the unknown at a new school.

With Mighty Fine, director Debbie Goodstein strains to make an affecting family drama and coming-of-age story, but is swamped in a mass of clichés and miscasting. All the hoary genre tropes seem to be present and accounted for—the reminiscing adult narration of an unseen, grown Natalie who, of course, is a nascent writer; Natalie’s “ugly duckling” status vis à vis Maddie’s instantly accepted pulchritude; Stella, the perfect, bewilderingly forbearing doormat for an abusive husband, like June Cleaver married to Attila the Hun.

The wild card Goodstein throws into the mix is Joe’s uncontrollable anger, the family secret and ever-present elephant in the room, which periodically tears everything asunder. He rages at Maddie’s mistakes while teaching her to drive, almost running her over in the process, and later threatens her high-school party guests with a shotgun. When not being a complete brute, he’s an affable overspender, installing his family in a ridiculously big house that’s a replica of Tara in Gone with the Wind and pushing pricey presents at them at every turn. When a failed suicide attempt on his part scares the bejesus out of everyone even more than usual, Stella finally womans up and calls the cops, who cart him away to an institution.

And that’s about it. One feels that Goodstein was probably working out some haunting personal memories of her own, but her handling of the material is so lax, wayward and pointless that no genuine emotions are ever evoked. You seem to spend the entire film waiting for that ticking time bomb, Joe, to explode yet again.

The movie is so insular directorially that nothing is really made of the New Orleans setting. The casting of Palminteri and MacDowell as Jews is problematic, even with MacDowell’s strenuously done Yiddish accent. Bobby Bukowski’s unnecessarily harsh photography does neither of them any physical favors. At times, the black lacquer-haired Palminteri has a risible resemblance to Bela Lugosi, and although he works mightily to achieve an elemental, scary power playing the ultimate jerk, like Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life, his efforts ring hollow. One spoken memory about his own childhood abuse is all we have to go on for the reasons behind his psychosis, but it’s really as much of a mystery as the murkily presented business dealings which supposedly are driving him so crazy.

Even with the aforesaid cinematography, Qualley (MacDowell’s real-life daughter) is quite lovely, however, and a good actress to boot. Due to Goodstein’s faulty sense of period detail, she looks too 2012-starlet, but nonetheless manages to offer a bit of welcome respite from the pervasive ugliness.