The comic drama "Isn't It Delicious" is aimed squarely at baby boomers — the hokey pokey plays a pivotal role, and a trio of central characters are named after Kennedys. But formative pop-culture references are the least of it. The story of a steely Connecticut matriarch's final weeks explores a more crucial generational marker: a my-way-or-the-highway attitude toward illness and dying.
An actors' piece, director Michael Patrick Kelly's first narrative feature registers low on the cinematic-oomph scale, the production's low budget sometimes all too evident. Its aim is true, though, and Kathleen Chalfant infuses the lead role with an elegant ferocity.
As Joan, a woman who relishes her unfiltered smokes and straight-up scotch — especially after receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer — she takes no prisoners, whether shouting down a stranger or talking with brutal honesty to her long-suffering husband (Keir Dullea) and daughter (Alice Ripley). Bile and swearing, along with a self-medication smorgasbord, are key ingredients of the Weldon family dynamic. In its tart humor and straight talk about drugs, adultery and death, "Delicious" strikes original chords that set it apart from dime-a-dozen tales of dysfunction.
Working from a screenplay by Kathleen J. Kiley, Kelly has populated his film with actors known mainly for their stage work. Not all the players scale their performances to the intimacy of the screen. The resulting unevenness of tone echoes the story itself, which alternates between the powerfully expressive and the clumsily declarative. Although the flinty Joan is a wonderfully realized character, a number of supporting roles are thinly drawn types rather than three-dimensional figures.
That imbalance applies to the Weldons' variety pack of aggrieved adult children. The Kennedy-namesake trio of Caroline, Bobby and Teddy, two of them high-functioning addicts, lead separate lives in Manhattan, not far from the well-to-do coastal enclave where their parents reside. The least convincing of the bunch is Bobby (Nick Stevenson), a coke-addled Wall Streeter with a stripper girlfriend. He comes in handy when Joan needs painkillers, while younger brother Teddy (Jonah Young), a nonmaterialistic searcher, provides chemo-antidote joints and lessons in Buddhist philosophy.
Ripley's Caroline, the eldest child, is a more complex creation than the brothers, a beautiful middle-aged mess who resents both her parents, for different reasons, while longing for her mother's approval. Having inherited Joan's taste for booze, she's prone to acting out, especially after breaking up with her girlfriend.
The film's most compelling conflict is that between Joan and her husband, Bill, terrifically underplayed by Chalfant and Dullea (astronaut Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey," which receives a winking nod here). Though screenwriter Kiley doesn't effectively distill all her ideas, in the shorthand between this coexisting couple she gets it right, and the actors convey decades of disconnect with economy. Besides the good cop, bad cop roles that Bill and Joan have settled into with their kids, there's the victim/villain configuration built around her long-ago infidelities.
With a title drawn from a Buddhist parable, the movie avoids the sentimentality of formulaic "breakthrough" moments in Joan's clear-eyed choices, refusals and reckonings in the face of death. And in Chalfant's tough and lovely portrayal, a "difficult" woman is humbled and enlightened without forsaking her brassy humor — or her taste for single malt.
"Isn't It Delicious."
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.