"The Myth of Fingerprints" charts the incremental steps toward further dysfunctionality in a New England WASP family over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend. Proficiently written and directed by newcomer Bart Freundlich, handsome pic brandishes traditional qualities in the areas of acting and middlebrow seriousness, but operates within a familiar and narrow emotional range that provides little surprise or excitement.

“The Myth of Fingerprints” charts the incremental steps toward further dysfunctionality in a New England WASP family over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend. Proficiently written and directed by newcomer Bart Freundlich, handsome pic brandishes traditional qualities in the areas of acting, character revelation and middlebrow seriousness, but operates within a familiar and narrow emotional range that provides little surprise or excitement. Solid, respectable nature of the film will earn it a measure of attention from mainstream critics and upscale specialized audiences, but this is too much like high-toned TV fare, with a little extra spice thrown in, to generate above-average theatrical action.

The format, of a splintered family coming together for a holiday gathering that inevitably results in an accentuation of its members’ difficulties and resentments, is a hoary staple of legit theater even more than of films. All the characters must be introduced with pithy lines that quickly define them for the audience, whereupon skeletons in closets and details of past unsavory actions can be unveiled at the discretion of the dramatist.

Freundlich, an NYU film school grad, gets over the initial pleasantries by concentrating on sex. Gathering for the first time in three years, the children of Lena (Blythe Danner) and Hal (Roy Scheider) begin rolling in to the rambling yellow homestead in Maine.

Student-age Warren (Noah Wyle) is still hung up on the high school sweetheart, Daphne (Arija Bareikis), who dumped him, and he quickly tracks her down. Good-looking Jake (Michael Vartan) turns up with a blonde, Margaret (Hope Davis), with sex on the brain, and Mia (Julianne Moore), who manages to find a bad word to say about everything, brings along her latest man, Elliot (Brian Kerwin), a boring psychotherapist who nonetheless piques the interest of the family’s youngest member, Leigh (Laurel Holloman).

It’s a very horny bunch, including Mom and Dad, and pic scores its biggest laugh when, on the first night everyone is under one roof, the sounds of one couple having sex are overheard by another, who become similarly inspired, then another, until the whole house is rocking.

While most of the family seems outgoing and within the realm of normalcy, Dad looks to be a bit of a weirdo, as he says little and skulks off alone to hunt for the Thanksgiving turkey, only to fire his rifle for effect upon his return while carrying a store-bought bird.

In the course of Warren and Daphne’s reconciliation, little flashbacks reveal the cause of the latter’s retreat — sexual indiscretions on the part of Warren’s father. While Warren simmers about that, Mia is opened up by the admiring attentions of a young fellow who used to know her in grade school and now goes by the name of Cezanne (James LeGros).

But within the big house, family members tend to stick to themselves or peel off in pairs. Obligatory group occasions, specifically dinners, are the worst, with Dad maintaining his silence and even retreating to a treehouse when conversation takes a disagreeable turn.

Most of the problems turn on the father’s inscrutable personality, which is so bizarre that it becomes unfathomable why the kids don’t talk about it more among themselves. In the end, there is simply too much that remains unaddressed in the screenplay. Freundlich has a knack for clever, amusing lines that reveal character traits and attitudes, but he doesn’t even bother to state what all the characters do in life, or even what they may be interested in.

The point of the title seems to be a denial of blood ties as a determinate in kinship and personality, but these family members are sufficiently alike to belie the thesis of the primacy of differences over similarities. After a point, one realizes that everyone here is almost outrageously good-looking and drives a Volvo, and with such muted, peculiar matters keeping the family from coalescing, the issues at stake ultimately don’t seem terribly interesting or meaningful.

All the same, Freundlich displays a solid ability to orchestrate the activities and concerns of the multitude of characters. Most of the individual scenes come fully to life and are well handled on a moment-to-moment basis. From a performance p.o.v., the ensemble fits together nicely, with everyone registering effectively in their respective moments of opportunity.

Technically, pic has a cool sheen, notably in Stephen Kazmierski’s carefully modulated lensing featuring subdued colors and in the clear, no-flab editing by Kate Williams and Ken J. Sackheim.

The Myth of Fingerprints

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Good Machine production in association with Eureka Pictures. Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Tim Perell, Bart Freundlich. Executive producers, James Schamus, Ted Hope. Directed, written by Bart Freundlich.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Stephen Kazmierski; editors, Kate Williams, Ken J. Sackheim; music, David Bridie, John Phillips; production design, Susan Bolles; art direction, John McFarlane; set decoration, Catherine Pierson; costume design, Lucy W. Corrigan; sound (Dolby), Peter Schneider, Jesse Feigelman; line producer, Victoria McGarry; associate producers, Howard Bernstein, Anthony Bregman, Noah Wyle; assistant director, David Wechsler; casting, Douglas Aibel. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 1997. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Daphne - Arija Bareikis
Lena - Blythe Danner
Margaret - Hope Davis
Leigh - Laurel Holloman
Elliot - Brian Kerwin
Cezanne - James LeGros
Mia - Julianne Moore
Hal - Roy Scheider
Jake - Michael Vartan
Warren - Noah Wyle

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