Film Review: Petunia

Dysfunctional-family farce which, as a comedy, doesn’t function at all.

Painfully shy and awkward Charlie Petunia (Tobias Segal) has decided to become celibate, having witnessed the disasters sex has engendered in his highly dysfunctional family. Nothing but the most vicious sniping goes on between his two psychotherapists parents (Christine Lahti and David Rasche), while his oldest brother Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has just married unregenerate Manhattan party girl Vivian (Thora Birch), a mismatch that results in pregnancy—except that Vivian doesn’t know whether the true father is Michael or Charlie’s other, sex-addict brother, Adrian (Jimmy Heck). Try to resist as he might, Charlie becomes romantically involved with Vivian’s cousin George (Michael Urie), not knowing that he is married to Robin (Brittany Snow), one really angry lady as a result of her hubby’s neglect and gay dalliances.

Whee! Some fine recipe for a farce, huh? Or at least that’s what director and co-writer Christian Ash seems to think with a conviction that would be more admirable were it truly warranted. From the minute Petunia starts—at the excruciatingly uncomfortable wedding of Michael and Vivian—the film has a decided been-there/done that feel to it, from those matching shrink parents (so much fresher and better done in All Over the Guy, a film made a dozen years ago and superior in every way to this one) to Adrian’s special condition, known as Love Tourette’s (in which he shouts “I love you!” during anonymous sex hook-ups). There’s also a hapless failed suicide attempt for Michael, and Ash even includes a satirical performance-art moment which would have seem dated in 1990.

Even given this beyond-hackneyed premise, Petunia might have redeemed itself with some really funny lines and situations, but Ash provides none of those, often just going in for a comedy-of-cruelty obviousness that is more wince than laugh-inducing. It’s a particular shame, as the attractive, oh-so-promising cast—every one of them—sinks without a trace into the morass. Although Segal doesn’t bother to go much beyond the fuzzily sketched parameters of his loser dweeb of a character, it’s wonderful to see Christine Lahti—looking virtually unchanged—on the big screen again, but she deserves so much better than the clueless, overbearing shrew she has been given to play here. I particularly could have done without seeing her go buck-wild on Ecstasy here, another of Ash’s thuddingly whimsical conceits.