REVIEW: Kathleen Turner's a Kick — Up to a Point — in The Perfect Family
Casting Kathleen Turner as a small-town mom nominated for “Catholic Woman of the Year” is about as risky as it gets in The Perfect Family, first-time director Anne Renton’s soft-willed religious tolerance parable. The whiskied voice alone makes it sound like Tallulah Bankhead has risen from the dead and crashed the sacristy where Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) is laying out his vestments for Sunday Mass. But as the anodyne network drama title suggests, petty ironies are more this movie’s speed.
Turner plays Eileen Cleary, pious community pillar and well-blinkered mother of a lesbian daughter named Shannon (Emily Deschanel) and philandering son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter). Eileen’s husband Frank Sr. (Michael McGrady) first appears to be the long-suffering one: Eileen quietly relishes her identity as the local do-gooder; if her insistence on the Clearys’ arid weekly family dinners is any indication, maintaining that identity may have more to do with her good works than Christian selflessness. In fact Frank Sr. was a handful in his day; 10 years sober, his role in their relationship has a distinctly penitential vibe.
But then everyone seems to humor Eileen. A religious dinosaur roaming a modern world, for much of the film she is the one who requires tolerance. Shannon is five months pregnant and set to marry Angela (Angelique Cabral), a union everyone but Eileen accepts, including Angela’s brassy Latina mother (Elizabeth Peña). After her poor reaction to this news sends Shannon to the hospital (a soap opera move that happens twice), Eileen goes into charitable mode, bestowing kindness on the sinner but continuing to hate the sin. Frank Jr. gets stricter treatment, but then he is leaving a wife and kids for a manicurist (Kristen Dalton); the suggestion of vaguely defined unhappiness in his marriage is meant to instill sympathy.
The plot hinges on the anticipation of the Archbishop of Dublin’s arrival, when he’ll forgive everyone’s sins and decide who’s the Catholic-est of them all. Eileen’s main competition is a supercilious church groupie and longtime rival named Agnes (Sharon Lawrence). Agnes is open about her hypocrisies, where Eileen keeps up a tight social front. That she doesn’t seem to have a problem lying about her loved ones opens the quality and function of Eileen’s faith to question, but the script (by Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley) falls short of matching Turner’s game performance with a character study that teases out the complications of a self-identifying good Christian.
Instead the tone hovers between mild satire and soapy melodrama. Launched into the space between those two modes, a line like “I don’t have to think, I’m a Catholic!” — Eileen’s response to an accusation of closed-mindedness — falls flat. Especially when compared to the recent Natural Selection, in which a woman stifled by a dogma-driven life goes rogue, The Perfect Family seems to resist introspective pit stops, cruising toward its tidy resolution with a host of missed opportunities in its wake. Even Eileen’s climactic confession feels like a clockwork bid for empathy. At critical moments Renton’s direction feels a couple of seconds off the beat; often the dramatic center of an obviously dramatic scene (Eileen's home interview with a church delegation and Frank Senior's sudden flight from the marriage are two examples) never quite materializes.
It’s still a kick to watch Kathleen Turner don a housedress and trade soothing pieties with Richard Chamberlain. The Perfect Family feels like it could have been more than that, but I suppose counting its blessings is the more Christian thing to do.