With The Family Tree, director Vivi Friedman and screenwriter Mark Lisson are aiming for a cynical comedy about the absence of life's meaning for suburbanites, but their overly cutesy tone keeps the film from having the dramatic punch they want during the film's closing minutes.
The Burnetts are a prototypical version of a dysfunctional family living in a gorgeous suburban two-story home. Mom Bunnie (Hope Davis) acts out home invasion/rape sexual fantasies with their neighbor Simon (Chi McBride), while sexually frustrated dad Jack (Dermot Mulroney) seethes at his lousy job while lusting for his co-worker Alicia (Christina Hendricks). Their daughter, Kelly (Brittany Robinson), cultivates a reputation as a slut, even though she hasn't really done anything to earn that distinction, and their son, Eric (Max Thieriot), is a gun-toting Christian crusader who hangs out with guys that think peeing on pot smokers is doing God's work. The foursome's unhealthy dynamic starts to unravel when Bunnie suffers a head injury during her illicit shenanigans and develops amnesia -- she can't remember anything after she got married. Now the family has a chance to put the pieces back together, even though dirty secrets -- including one hanging from a tree in the front yard -- could be exposed at any moment.
Right from the start, Friedman aims for a cartoonish, almost smarmy tone; the movie is proud of how "out there" it is, and it invites us to dislike all of the characters. That comes through clearly with the opening accidental death of a Peeping Tom, and in the easy cynicism spouted by every member of the Burnett clan. We're not supposed to take them seriously, and that would be fine if Lisson's script had more anger in it, but this is a toothless satire because these characters would have these problems no matter where they resided, be it suburbia, a big city, or the outback in Australia.
Only Keith Carradine's Reverend Diggs, a God-fearing, gun-loving religious figure, has any real satirical bite. He's become Eric's role model, and the movie manages to mock his behavior and his ethos while not dismissing his point-of-view -- he's the only honest, confident adult in town. His scenes make you think something is happening in the movie, but eventually we get to a would-be screwball ending where two teens break into the Burnett home, keep everybody hostage, and all the dirty laundry gets aired. This unimaginative ending might work if we cared about these people, but it's rather difficult to find any affection for anyone. The film's final point, delivered in voice-over by Eric, attempts to fuse cynicism and forgiveness into some sort of acceptance of the dysfunctional status quo, and it's a dramatic as well as comedic cop-out.
The Family Tree wants to be a strong, fizzy cocktail that mocks suburban complacency, but it hits about as hard as a nonalcoholic beer.