There’s something more than a little redundant about the therapy session that kicks off “Boundaries,” considering the movie itself is little more than a clumsy feature-length therapy session. The client is Laura (Vera Farmiga), a single mom who has gone through life accumulating all manner of stray pets and daddy issues: Filling her cramped Seattle home with every stray cat and dog she meets is her way of trying to compensate for the father-shaped void in her life.
It’s an on-the-nose start for a movie that, as written and directed by Shana Feste, sets off your quirk-o-meter early on and never lets up. Besides all those cats and dogs, Laura lives with her teenage son, Henry (Lewis MacDougall), a smart, maladjusted kid who likes to sketch nude drawings of everyone he meets. (Quirk.) Laura has a sibling in Los Angeles named JoJo (Kristen Schaal), a dog walker who reminisces endlessly about “The Karate Kid” and calls Laura “Sister-san.” (Quirk-quirk.)
And then there’s their father, Jack (Christopher Plummer), an impossible and impossibly charming con man who has just been kicked out of his retirement home for dealing marijuana, forcing Laura to break years of non-contact, fetch her dad and drive him down to L.A. with Henry in tow. The three jump into Jack’s gold Rolls-Royce, which is basically the vintage luxury-car version of the yellow bus from “Little Miss Sunshine,” only this time crammed with $200,000 worth of weed that Jack secretly plans to offload up and down the West Coast, with an assist from his rebellious grandson. (Quirk-quirk-quirk-quirk-quirk-quirk.)
From there, “Boundaries” hits the usual picaresque beats of the dysfunctional-family road-trip movie subgenre, in which strained comic excursions and belabored reunions lurk around every bend. Jack gets back in touch with various smiling old codgers from his youth (Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda). His pot clientele includes a few Buddhist monks, who serve roughly the same ornamental, exoticizing function as the Chinese restaurant (cue the strings) where the family stops at one point. Laura also drops in on her ex-husband (Bobby Cannavale), the better to remind us that her father’s chronic neglect left her with no choice but to pursue men as dashing and useless as he is.
Feste, whose films include “The Greatest,” “Endless Love” and the underappreciated music-biz melodrama “Country Strong,” has been known to elicit strong performances even from thuddingly obvious, maudlin material. But her attempts to establish an atmosphere of drab, low-key realism — evident in the dim lighting, wobbly framing and Laura’s penchant for rumpled plaid shirts — can scarcely conceal the essential phoniness of the story. Farmiga throws herself into the role of a person swinging wildly between extremes, barely holding everything together one minute, throwing it all away the next. But her preternatural intelligence and subtlety as an actress are wasted on a character who never stops shouting her hang-ups from the rooftops.
Exactly what Jack did or didn’t do to make him such a horrible father is left weirdly under-explored. It’s hard to recall a recent movie with more exclamatory dialogue than “Boundaries” — “I know how much you must hate me!” “You can’t live without being a victim!” — and less in the way of actual emotional revelation. No matter: As you might expect from an actor who just got done playing J. Paul Getty and Ebenezer Scrooge, Plummer’s curmudgeonly charisma is a force unto itself. The title might well refer to the thin, meager outlines of a screenplay that can scarcely contain him.
Rating: R, for drug material, language, some sexual references and nude sketches
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles