Sorry, Mrs. Cleaver: dysfunctional families are "in" these days, and here to stay--at least as far as this fall's movie crop is concerned. Close on the heels of the high-powered but uneven A Thousand Acres, and preceding The House of Yes and the much-anticipated The Ice Storm, comes the The Myth of Fingerprints, the debut feature of writer/director Bart Freundlich.
It opens with a grainy home video--which sets the stage for the gritty, almost monochromatic texture of the rest of the movie--of an apparently happy, eminently normal family gathered together for a birthday party. The story then cuts to 20 years later, with the annual Thanksgiving reunion with the folks (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner). This year, all four children show up: Mia (Julianne Moore), Jake (Michael Vartan), Leigh (Laurel Holloman), and, somewhat unexpectedly, the long-absent Warren (Noah Wyle). Significant others are in attendance: Mia's boyfriend, Elliot (Brian Kerwin); Jake's girlfriend, Margaret (Hope Davis); and, flitting in and out of the family picture, past and present, Warren's ex-girlfriend, Daphne (Arija Bareikis).
With all this pairing off, one would expect a healthy dose of sex--which is duly provided, especially generously at the beginning. But as this initial burst of heat tapers off, it becomes increasingly obvious that, to put it tactfully, warmth is not the chief attribute of this household. Mia and Warren, who emerge as the two central figures of this menage, both evidently bear a deep-rooted hostility toward their father, thought various expressed: Mia seethes with a bitterness that continually cracks through the surface, while Warren's anger, being mixed with personal guilt, is internalized for most of the film. Their resentment envelops the more peripheral characters such that the air at each family dinner is not so much charged as brittle with tension.
Freundlich invokes the Chekhovian in both his unsentimental depiction of each family member's half-comic, half-pathetic weaknesses and his deliberate avoidance of a cinematically neat closure. Unfortunately, his script falls short of making the characters sufficiently three-dimensional to earn our empathy. We really learn only one or two things about each of them: that Warren's never gotten over his breakup with Daphne; that Jake's still struggling to say "I love you" to Margaret; and that Leigh hasn't outgrown being the baby of the family, though she's found time for an unaccountable but placid crush on Elliot.
We never really figure out Mia, despite her witchin' and bitchin' and eventual tearful communion with a former kindergarten classmate (James LeGros, in a quirky if slender role) over a book whose title, "The Scream of Rabbits," might just as well have replaced the equally incomprehensible "Myth of Fingerprints." No less unfathomable is Scheider's stony-faced patriarch, who offers no clue to any of his actions or offenses against his children. Danner gets next to nothing to do as the sensible, yet oddly passive mother; and Kerwin's Elliot, a psychotherapist with no apparent therapeutic skills, remains a mere cipher, a receptacle for Mia's pent-up rage.
Within these limits, there's actually quite a lot of good acting to be seen here. Wyle (who had bit parts in movies before stepping onto the set of "ER") acquits himself well as the soul-searching Warren. There's a depth and intelligence in his gaze that translates across both the big and small screen. Moore, as Mia, is convincingly abrasive and acerbic, even though the source of her anger remains a mystery. Hope Davis' Margaret brings a refreshingly clear-eyed, unselfconscious good humor that helps brighten the glumness of her surroundings, while Scheider's craggy Lincoln-like profile retains an impassive air that makes his rare moments of shame and discomfort all the more poignant. But all these praiseworthy efforts just leave one wishing that these actors had more to work with.
The visually stark setting--Maine in the winter--oppresses with a further sense of isolation and remoteness. Perhaps intended as a part of Freundlich's tranche-de-vie attempt at a Thanksgiving that could really happen, this environment doesn't help us connect to the characters we watch trudging back and forth across the snow. While The Myth of Fingerprints should be commended for studiously avoiding a Hollywood treatment of the family drama, it can't quite conceal that where substance is wanting, it doesn't matter whether the surface is glossy or gritty.
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