For the past 15 years or so, Kathleen Turner’s acting career seems to have taken that dismal route toward that dark abyss where almost every single actress’ career in Hollywood goes after they hit 40. (Studios seem to think that Meryl Streep is the only veteran actress with talent and a smidgen of audience recognition –– but let’s not get into that discussion, shall we?). So when I heard that Turner would be headlining Anne Renton’s family drama, “The Perfect Family,” I felt a ripple in my lower left ventricle as it burst with unreasonable excitement. For an actress of Turner’s age to get her hands on a juicy role is unheard of, not to mention the lead in a movie. The last director that offered this American thespian an inspiring role was Sofia Coppola and that was in 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides.”
In “The Perfect Family,” Turner plays Eileen Cleary, a devout Catholic woman and suburban housewife whose life orbits around her volunteer work at the local parish. From the opening scenes, we know that Eileen is a mainstay at her church. She pays frequent visits to pray to the Virgin Mary, she volunteers as an altar server and she plans community-outreach programs with the mother superior. You know that saying about clergymen and women: They’re married to Jesus? Well, this is true of Eileen, who seems like the type of person who’d be more excited about a six-month visit to Africa as a missionary than about an all-expenses paid trip to Bora Bora. It would be no hyperbole to say that Eileen may even take her job as a Catholic woman more seriously than the Pope takes his.
So when the parish priest, Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain), informs her that she’s been nominated for the coveted prize of “Catholic Woman of the Year,” Eileen’s face registers like any kid’s when they meet Santa Claus. Turner’s smile curls with such poignant elation that it’s hard for anyone not to smile along with her. Already, the actress seems on top of her game — ably communicating a multitude of emotions in a single frame and showcasing the skills that have made her such a lasting force in film.
But even to this pious saint, the world seems unruly, cruel and unfair. Her moment of ecstasy is quickly shattered when she learns two more pieces of information. First, she’s competing with Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence), the other church’s mainstay besides Eileen and longtime rival who’s less saintly than our heroine and clearly hypocritical. Second, to defeat the unstoppable Agnes, she must introduce her family — a motley crew of misfits that include a recovering alcoholic, an adulterous fireman, and a pregnant lesbian — to the voting committee. It’s a task that already sets her up for failure, at least according to Eileen.
For the first half, the movie seems to play as a comedy about a dysfunctional family, whose perils may or may not stem from an uncompromising mother unwilling to accept their less than perfect behavior. Director Anne Renton is particularly interested in exploring the mother-daughter relationship between Eileen and Shannon (Emily Deschanel) and their conflicting views toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Eileen feels torn between pressuring Shannon to abandon her gay lifestyle and accepting her as she is with no less than unconditional love and support — something Shannon secretly vies for. It’s a relevant and nuanced angle, but one that ultimately gets lost in an otherwise drab film.
It’s unfortunate that Turner is sandbagged with a less-than-inspiring script that never quite finds the proper tone to convey its very complex message. Turner shines amongst formidable supporting performances, but even she struggles with quizzical characterization and choppy dialogue. Her approach even feels uncharacteristic (but inspiring) of her. Turner usually fuels her line readings with a raspy zest, which are always aided by her husky voice. Here though, the actress opts for a quieter, more restrained approach.
However, Renton never allows the actress to fully articulate her intricate character. Sadly, the story remains a vapid one-dimensional showdown between Catholicism and homosexuality. However, what should be a film based in realism comes across as artificial with the kind of melodramatic dialogue and shallow characterization usually found on home video. I guess our on-screen goddess has to wait a little bit longer for that golden role.