By Susan JAMES
Newbie director Anne Renton’s art market film, “The Perfect Family” is a Catholic fairy tale with a happy ending. But along the way there are a lot of bruises and bumps, some of them filmed in a familiar locale outside Honolulu Avenue shops in Montrose.
Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, an obsessive-compulsive parishioner who prays as often as she inhales. Her religion is both a crutch that helps her deal with secret guilt and a blind she hides behind to keep from facing problems in her own family. In less skillful acting hands, Eileen would be a sermonizing one-note irritation. But from Eileen’s obsessions Turner manages to forge insights into the mind of a flawed but sympathetic woman.
Eileen has been nominated by parish priest Monsignor Murphy (a smooth Richard Chamberlain) for the Catholic Woman of the Year Award. Not only does this flatter her ego and shine a light on her efforts as a community do-gooder, it puts her in direct competition with another nominee, her lifetime nemesis, the unlovable and conniving Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence). Agnes has been nominated by an equally unlovable woman, Sister Joan (Rebecca Wackler), a nun who detests Eileen. To win the prize, Eileen must show her priest and several assorted bishops who make up the judging committee that her family is the perfect Catholic family. She’s asked to present them to the judges during a mandatory home visit.
Eileen’s family is far from perfect and includes her ex-alcoholic fireman husband Frank (Michael McGrady), her lesbian lawyer daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel), and her fireman son Frank, Jr. (Jason Ritter). Unbeknownst to her mother, Shannon is five months pregnant and planning a wedding with her lover Angela (Angelique Cabral).
Frank, Jr. has just left his wife for an older woman. Eileen’s efforts to force her son back into his loveless marriage and her shock at her daughter’s announcement that Shannon is going to marry her significant other in a matter of days blow Eileen’s carefully constructed world apart. It is how she stumbles and fumbles to put it back together and reconnect with her family in the process that is the major theme of the film.
Screenwriters Paula Goldberg and Claire Riley have built their script around a traditional woman in a religious environment, but they have managed to infuse it with an everywoman touch. Eileen’s story would be recognizable no matter what age she lived in or whether she came from the East or West Coast, China, India or Israel. It’s a story of different generations and their different viewpoints, the changing ideals that they set for themselves and for their families. The film explores how these visions are complicated and competitive and can be destructive or affirmational depending on the personalities involved.
Despite the prejudices instilled in her by her upbringing, Turner’s Eileen is a genuinely kind person embittered by the early years of her marriage spent dealing with her husband’s alcoholism and infidelity. A trauma suffered back then led her to commit an act that still haunts her. It makes her obsession with the universal absolution of sins, one perk of the Catholic Woman of the Year Award, understandable.
Turner’s ability to convey both the love and the humor in a character so shackled by fear and guilt is a tribute to her authority as an actor.
Ably supported by McGrady, Deschanel and Ritter, she proves the punch line that love is all you need.
See you at the movies!