eulogy

2004

Written and Directed: Michael Clancy

I think Eulogy is not as darkly funny and cutting as writer/director Michael Clancy thinks it is. If it were, his approach would have been spot-on, but since it isn't he starts wrapping up his dark comedy almost before it has really even begun.

Instead of spending enough time showing us how horrible these people are to each other, Eulogy wastes a lot of screen time effectively apologising to us for its horrible characters rather than exploiting them to full comic effect. With such an amazing cast and a script that actively encourages off-the-wall overacting the story seemed too sedate, probably as a result of the fact that the adult characters spend half the film stoned. Despite his attempt to make his fictional family the definition of dysfunctional, the Collins family just aren't evil enough before they start on the journey towards redemption.

The Collins family members have all been summoned home to attend the funeral of their father Edmund (Rip Torn). The story, as much as there is one, is told mostly through the eyes of Kate (the wonderfully poised Zooey Deschanel). Her father Daniel (Hank Azaria) is a struggling actor who even in adulthood is best known for a stupid, peanut butter commercial he did as a child. Kate actually liked her grandfather, but she's pretty much the only one. Even Edmund's long-suffering wife Charlotte (Piper Laurie) sees his death as a way out. However, Charlotte loved Edmund enough to give Kate one duty for the funeral, to write and deliver a eulogy for her grandfather that gives him a fitting sendoff from all the family.

As she attempts to write the eulogy, her aunts, uncles and cousins don't offer up much help. In a slightly deadpan version of his well-worn TV schtick, Ray Romano as Skip does the film no favours. He's suffering acute middle-child syndrome and believes his father never paid any attention to him because his brother was in a cute peanut butter commercial. Skip is saved from being unbearable somewhat by the fact that his twin boys are in almost every scene with him. They're destined to end up just like him except for one important fact; they are infinitely more dangerous, and funnier, because they appear to be evil geniuses in the making.

Alice (Debra Winger) is the overbearing older sister who is such a domineering wife and mother that her husband is no longer capable of finishing sentences and her children now no longer speak at all. Alice has spent the vast majority of her adult life torturing her younger sister Lucy (Kelly Preston) about her lesbianism. Lucy turns up at the funeral with her droll "life partner" Judy (Famke Jansson) and announces at dinner that they're getting married, which only seems to inflame Alice further. Of course, Alice is resentful simply because she's harbouring some same-sex tendencies of her own.

When no one has anything pleasant to say about her grandfather, or anyone else for that matter, Kate finds herself drawn again to an old friend in the neighbourhood, Ryan (Jesse Bradford, in desperate need of a hairdresser). Kate lost her virginity to him the summer before and he's still carrying a huge torch for her. Only Kate knows nothing about real love or relationships and keeps pushing him away, hardly surprising since she's come from the Collins household of hell, her father is a pot-smoking actor and her mother was a porn star. In the end it is Ryan's straightforward, naive emotions—uncluttered by the Collins family history—that helps Kate deliver a eulogy that unites the entire family, if only for a brief moment.

It's not difficult to see the areas in Eulogy that could have been improved. If the script had let Hank Azaria loose with his character instead of making him a pothead things might have gone better. Famke Jansson was seriously miscast as the lesbian lover, had only one expression in the entire film and missed almost every comedic cue she had, which threatened to drag down Kelly Preston's actually quite excellent performance.

Preston finds comic subtleties in her character that you can easily miss, but like her supporting role in View From The Top, she fills up every brief moment she has onscreen. Glenne Headley's Samantha the ever-helpful nurse was a gas, but it was almost as if Clancy never really decided upon the best way to use her in the script so she kind of got lost in the confusion. I would also have been happier if the eulogy in question had been for Ray Romano's career being put to rest, because it needs to be, and soon.

There's an awful lot to like about Eulogy, but it is a film of funny moments lacking an engaging, emotional core. Also, the approach to the comedy seems random and confused. Clancy can't seem to decide if he wants his film to be a witty comedy of (lack of) manners or a slapstick farce, and he doesn't have the talent to carry off both.

It's difficult to point out the highlights without giving away what few plot twists there are. Keep an eye out for Granny's suicide attempt from a moving vehicle and the evil twins attempting to torture Alice's children to speak. These were moments of comedy gold. Also, Zooey Deschanel spends the vast majority of the film rolling her eyes, and I couldn't quite figure out if it was intentional, but it cracked me up every time.

Amongst the comedic wreckage the director wastes the talents of Hank Azaria and undermines the two best plot twists in his film, the revelations from Alice and Edmund that their lives aren't what everyone believes them to be. When the big twist in the tail arrives, no one seems surprised. The whole point of the film gets lost in an overly-sentimental push to try and save the characters from themselves, personality defects Clancy didn't push far enough to fully convince us of in the first place.

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Kelly Preston as Lucy
Glenne Headley, Piper Laurie and Zooey Deschanel
Hank Azaria and Debra Winger