Earnest and filled with self-doubt, “The Perfect Family,"starring Kathleen Turner, is a darkly comic family drama about the imperfect union between real life and the rigors of Catholic doctrine.
Like Eileen Cleary (Turner), the hopelessly devoted Catholic mother at its center, the movie has lost its way. It makes an unsteady debut for director Anne Renton, and the screenplay by Claire V. Riley and Paula Goldberg is literal to a fault. The film’s single saving grace is Turner, who channels that legendary Catholic guilt like there is no tomorrow.
By the time we meet the Clearys, Eileen is already a troubled soul, seeking something between atonement and redemption in her daily ministrations at the church. She is there to do whatever is needed, whether it is assisting the parish priest, Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain), with Mass or delivering meals to the parish shut-in, Mrs. Punch (June Squibb).
What she is really there for is to assuage her sins, though what could require all this penance is a mystery, the missteps she catalogs in her daily confessions such slight infractions. Eileen’s blessing and curse, and the film’s conflict and comedy, comes in the form of her nomination for Catholic Woman of the Year. Her high school nemesis Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence) appears to be her main obstacle until we meet the family.
They are a truculent bunch with problems that will require a massive cover-up if they are to pass muster with the bishop (Hansford Rowe) so that Eileen can win. It quickly becomes clear just how difficult that’s going to be. There is Eileen’s disaffected husband (Michael McGrady), whose alcoholism and affairs rocked the marriage years ago. There is her wayward son (Jason Ritter), who has left his wife and taken up with the local manicurist, which has the church ladies already gossiping. And now her daughter (Emily Deschanel), the successful pretty attorney, is posing the biggest threat — she’s just told her mother she’s gay, pregnant and about to have a commitment ceremony with her longtime partner (Angelique Cabral). They all may love the Cleary matriarch, but none of them seem to be inclined to bend to Eileen’s or the church’swill.
The comedy should come from Eileen’s struggles with the family, her own demons and her various states of denial — maybe the daughter will marry a man instead, maybe the son will reconcile with his wife — but it never gets enough traction to be anything other than mildly amusing, and slightly ironic in a sad sort of way.
The film’s aesthetic and emotional vibe is middle class, suburban and close knit, a small world created to match Eileen’s small worldview. It’s an environment that comes with a kind of claustrophobia that can be felt in Turner’s increasingly ragged breathing as the disasters pile up in front of her. Renton and director of photography Andre Lascaris (“The Normals”) use all that suburban blandness as a sharp contrast to Eileen’s rising desperation. The production design crew has done a great job with the details of her house, a middle-class shrine to family and religion rendered with just the right level of modesty.
What weighs on Eileen’s heart and mind reflects much of what troubles and tests present-day Catholics — abortion, divorce, birth control, adultery, gay marriage and gay adoption. The arguments, on the other hand, play out as if they were constructed in the ‘50s, when the issues, or at least airing them publicly, seemed more shocking, less an everyday occurrence.
Ultimately, “The Perfect Family’s” problem is not the ideas themselves but that there is so little nuance in the way the conflicting sides are laid out. Everything is too neatly black and white, when real life rarely is. The characters are so simplistic in their design, the issues they represent so clearly at odds with fundamental Catholic practice, there is little room for Turner to do much with the roiling emotions she has ginned up for Eileen. It leaves Eileen forever out of sync with everyone around her, a raging religious maelstrom in a sea of gray.