BY GARY M. KRAMER | A modestly made — and modestly affecting — comedy-drama about acceptance, “The Perfect Family” concerns Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) vying for the “Catholic Woman of the Year” award at her church. Eileen is devout — she attends Mass daily — and devoted to helping out the community, delivering food to the homebound. But, as the film eventually reveals, she has more than a few reasons to seek the absolution the award promises.
Eileen’s family is, no surprise, far from “perfect.” Her husband, Frank (Michael McGrady), is a recovering alcoholic. Her son, Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter), left his wife and has taken up with another woman. And, at a celebratory dinner, her daughter, Shannon (Emily Deschanel), drops the bombshell that she is both a lesbian and pregnant.
The film’s humor stems from the fact that Eileen must present her “honest, faithful, Catholic” family to the award committee, which includes the archbishop of Dublin. And she has to lie to do it. Few of these ironies are funny. An early scene in which Eileen tries to hide a mishap she has with some Communion wafers — sweeping them under the table and eating them later — is played broadly yet is barely amusing.
The characters and situations in “The Perfect Family” are often as superficial as a sitcom. During a big meeting with the monsignor (Richard Chamberlain), Frank Jr. shows up drunk and shouts about his sister’s “turkey-baster baby,” before being taken away to spare the family further shame.
Eileen wants her husband and children to “behave the way they are supposed to.” What she does not want to do is acknowledge why this is so difficult for them.
Shannon’s storyline, which involves difficulties with her pregnancy, is the dramatic — and best — part of the film. Trying to come to terms with her daughter’s relationship with Angela (Angelique Cabral), Eileen asks Angela’s mother, Christina (Elizabeth Peña), “How do you accept it?” Christina’s response is both sensible and sensitive.
Likewise, when Eileen confesses to Shannon that she signed a petition — initiated by her rival for the church’s award — against gay adoption, it prompts a candid conversation between mother and daughter about the issue.
“What do you think?” Shannon asks angrily, trying to get at her mother’s true feelings on the topic of gay parents.
“I don’t have to think!” her mother responds, hiding behind her faith. It’s a telling moment.
It’s never revealed whether Eileen felt pressured to sign the petition to win her award or actually believes in it, and such ambiguity makes “The Perfect Family” interesting. The film could have used more engaging scenes like this one. Instead, there are too many slapstick moments, like when Eileen has an adverse reaction during Shannon and Angela’s wedding ceremony.
“The Perfect Family” is all about the tension between the effort to get Eileen to change and her resistance to letting go of control. She slowly, if uneasily, tries to accept her daughter’s life and lover, yet she also manipulates her son’s new girlfriend to keep her from seeing him. She also struggles to keep her own marital tensions at bay. When Eileen falls short in her efforts maintain the family she expects, she comes to admit her mistakes and question her faith. A young priest she meets with offers her a fresh perspective on her situation. Nice as these moments are, however, the film fails to create any real emotional depth in Eileen’s crisis.
This is not the fault of Kathleen Turner, who gives a canny performance. Even if she at times appears to be overacting — trying too hard to play up Eileen’s positive façade — Turner’s performance succeeds at a deft balancing act. Eileen is hiding an obvious dark truth underneath, and when it comes to light, it explains her motivations and guilt. Her behavior at the award ceremony provides a nice redemption for a character that is at times unlikable, but never unsympathetic.
In support, Emily Deschanel does a fine job as Shannon, holding her own against Turner in many of the mother-daughter confrontations. Out gay actor Richard Chamberlain, however, is wasted in his role as the monsignor, given too little to do.
THE PERFECT FAMILY | Directed by Anne Renton | Variance Films | Opens May 4 | AMC Empire 25 | 234 W. 42nd St. | amctheatres.com