“All happy families resemble one another,” Count Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It's a memorable line. It has the cadence of a profound insight made catchy. It makes sense on the face of it, it's brief, and it's complete...fodder for Bartlett's, for sure.
It's only when you really think about it in terms of personal experience that you realize that it's not literally true and, on further reflection, that it's probably not even metaphorically true. It's only the petty details that distinguish unhappy families from one another. They are still relentlessly familiar and repetitive. Will Slocombe's new semicomedy “Cold Turkey” may seem particularly familiar: It's set entirely in Pasadena and was originally entitled “Pasadena” when appearing on the festival circuit.
That's certainly the way they come across in movies. (If nothing else, we can conclude that there is little overlap of film experiences between the good Count and me.) And, sadly, this holds true for Slocombe's film as well (opening at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and other venues).
The Turner family in this semicomedy is headed up by a Stanford professor (Peter Bogdanovich), apparently a neocon best known for being the man to disband the Iraqi military during the Iraq War. This blunder of literally historic proportions has undermined a lifelong academic career.
On top of that, despite being an apparently beloved father — almost everyone calls him Poppy (just like George H.W. Bush) — no one can mount a defense of his skills as a father or husband. With his first wife, he had two girls — Lindsay (Sonya Walger) and Nina (Alicia Witt) — before his philandering led to a divorce. With his current wife, Deborah (Cheryl Hines), he has one son, Jacob (Ashton Holmes), who is floundering in law school.
It's the day before Thanksgiving, and, as usual, Lindsay and Jacob have come home, with their significant others and children. What roils right beneath the cordial surface is the news that Nina is coming as well, for the first time in 15 years. Poppy may be the author of the family's trouble, but Nina is its product and major catalyst. She is either the only one in the group to acknowledge that their family has been wounded and limping ever since mom left or she's a petulant brat poking at its rotting carcass, still acting out against everyone else in the clan.
The film's P.O.V. shifts around, from Jacob to Lindsay to Nina's boyfriend, among others. But it's Bogdanovich whom we see more than the rest, even though Lindsay, Nina, and Jacob have more dialogue. Poppy wanders around the house, his face sagging with disappointment and self-loathing. He looks like a man who hasn't had a moment's pleasure in longer than he can remember. He has led a morally sloppy life, and this Thanksgiving he and the turkey are surrounded by birds — both human and Karmic — coming home to roost.
There are a few rough items of exposition. Unless you're familiar with the players, it can take a while to sort out who is married to whom with what kids. And we never really understand why Poppy confides everybody's secrets to the person least likely to keep them.
Besides some good performance moments, the film's most distinguishing aspect is Slocombe's choice to leave most of the issues unresolved. We learn something about the Turners, but they don't. For all the sound and fury, they only move on to a different state of secrets and lies.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).