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The Burnetts are dysfunctional. Jack and Bunnie barely speak, he fantasizes about women at work, she's having an affair with a neighbor and possibly others. Daughter Kelly is foul-mouthed; their son Eric is a militant Christian and an excellent shot. Bunnie's rich mom tries to control things. While a dead peeping Tom hangs undiscovered in a tree outside their bedroom window, Bunnie sustains a head injury and wakes up unable to remember anything after the first days of their marriage. Her newlywed sweetness infuses the family as Jack sorts through issues at work, Eric discovers flaws in his Christian posse, and Kelly makes friends with a lesbian classmate. Can this change of personality last? Written by
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A black comedy with a specialty at being repellent and a weakness at being funny or insightful
"The Family Tree" is the hopelessly misleading title of a frighteningly misanthropic would-be comedy that pretends to be a clever, black satire on modern day family values and American culture. But instead of provoking guilty laughs along with sharp insights, the horrifyingly television-esque picture defies its own intentions and produces anger as opposed to wit. And I can only imagine that if anybody can find the kindness in themselves to laugh at it, then they must really be feeling guilty.
Basically, if you are white, black, married, single, religious, anti-religious, homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, on drugs, anti-drugs, studious, rebellious, blue-collar, white-collar - a human being, in other words - the picture holds you with the absolute lowest of regard. The movie centers on a family, not a family tree, and their dopey neighbors and associates. It opens with a laughless scene of the family visiting a shrink, then goes to a high school peeping tom climbing into a tree at night, spying into the family's window and the wife's chest while masturbating. A squirrel startles him, he slips, gets the loop of the binoculars around his neck, and hangs himself.
Yes, he dies.
While he decomposes in the tree, we follow the rest of the characters. The wife gives herself amnesia while having sex with the nextdoor neighbor, the hypocritical religious son starts doing drugs while simultaneously developing a crush on a homosexual classmate, a neighbor finds himself associate with a couple of black hip-robbers. Oh, by the way, these are just a few of the numerous subplots that attempt to provide some dark insights of American life.
It's trying to be a picture like "30 Minutes or Less," a much-superior film released earlier this year. Neither film holds its audience with very high regard. So what is the difference between the two pictures and why is one a modestly successful and entertaining film with some laughs and insights and the other a sprawling, anger-inducing mess. The answer, I think, is that "30 Minutes or Less" had the wits and the courage to acknowledge what it was and play its satirical elements to a hilt. That way when I laughed at its black comic moments, I was feeling guilty for laughing at it, but being able to forgive myself because at the same time, the movie was offering some wicked and fascinating insights about contemporary culture and lifestyles.
"The Family Tree" only offers pseudo-insights. It never comes full term with what it is or what it wants to be or what it should be, and sparks anger as opposed to insights and laughs. Add to that some shoddy performance and a horrifically lamefooted directing style and the picture really bogs down. The movie is crammed with uncomfortably overpopulated close-ups and cheesy lighting reminiscent of dopey television comedies, not surprising seeing as how its director, Vivi Friedman, came from that field. The picture is just about an hour and a half long and it feels twice that length because it is so joylessly inept. Its specialty is not in providing information or laughs, but jolts of anger and groaning.
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