A tragic accident provides an excuse for a dysfunctional family to relive past grudges and grievances.

A tragic accident provides an excuse for a dysfunctional family to relive past grudges and grievances in “Fireflies in the Garden,” the writing-helming debut of Dennis Lee (known for his award-winning short “Jesus Henry Christ”). Produced by an American offshoot of Berlin-based Senator Entertainment, world preem in special out-of-competition Berlin slot seems more than the off-key project deserves. Despite the mega-wattage of pic’s starry cast, theatrical prospects seem dim for this clumsy melodrama, which looks and sounds no better than an average made-for-cabler. U.S. market potential looks best in ancillary.

Set in an unnamed Midwestern suburb that the pic implies is near Chicago (but filmed in Texas, so the landscape looks totally wrong), the prologue introduces the Taylor family: emotionally abusive, domineering father Charles (Willem Dafoe), a university professor and struggling writer; perfect mother Lisa (Julia Roberts, showing her past year’s pregnancy); and picked-on adolescent son Michael (Cayden Boyd). Lisa’s sulky teen sister Jane (Hayden Panetierre) joins the clan one summer and befriends downtrodden Michael.

Present-day story revolves around the same folks some 22 years later, when the planned celebration of Lisa’s belated university degree turns into a time of mourning. Michael (Ryan Reyolds) is now a successful novelist married to an alcoholic, Kelly (Carrie-Anne Moss).

Sister Ryne (Shannon Lucio), who was a mere bump in Lisa’s belly, has just entered law school. Jane (Emily Watson) and hubby Jimmy Lawrence (George Newbern) are, strangely, living in the old Taylor home with precocious, baseball-loving kiddies Christopher (Chase Ellison) and Leslie (Brooklyn Proulx).

Jumps between past and present aren’t always clearly signaled (apart from car models, the production design and costumes look the same) and the young actors bear little resemblance to their adult counterparts. Adding to the confusion, Reynolds appears too young for his character’s age.

Michael, who has never forgiven his father’s cruelties, has just completed a roman a clef about the family’s troubled past, “Fireflies in the Garden.” Title, also that of a Robert Frost poem, cues memory of a time when young Michael embarrassed Dad in front of colleagues by plagiarizing the poem, and was brutally punished.

Not content with mere allusions (and exemplifying its subtlety level), pic shows Michael and young cousins literally swatting at fireflies with badminton rackets. But then, this is a family that considers it fun to explode fish with firecrackers.

Apparently aspiring to the dark comedy of “Igby Goes Down,” an earlier Senator production, Lee’s semi-autobiographical script fails to sustain any tone convincingly. Dialogue lacks wit, relying overmuch on vernacular (“It sucks” is a frequent comment) and the F-word. False happy ending is in no way earned.

Perfs are all over the place, from Dafoe’s one-note monster dad to Boyd’s simmering resentment. On the distaff side, Roberts and Watson at least come off as warm mothers. Moss is a cipher treated as a deus ex machina.

Flat lighting and wan lensing by Roberts’ husband, Danny Moder, doesn’t do the actors any favors. Low-rent look of other tech credits leads one to suspect the major portion of budget was spent on the cast.

Fireflies in the Garden

U.S.

Production

A Senator Entertainment production, in association with Kulture Machine. (International sales: Essential Entertainment, Los Angeles). Produced by Marco Weber, Vanessa Coifman, Sukee Chew. Co-producer, Philip Rose. Executive producers, Jere Hausfater, Milton Liu. Directed and written by Dennis Lee.

Crew

Camera (color, CinemaScope), Danny Moder; editors, Dede Allen, Robert Brakey; music consultant, Nic Harcourt; production designer, Robert Pearson; art director, Timmy Hills; costume designer, Kelle Kutsugeras; sound (Dolby Digital, DTS), Lesa Foust; casting, Ferne Cassel; assistant director, Michael A. Allowitz. (Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition), Feb. 9, 2008. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Lisa Taylor - Julia Roberts Michael Taylor - Ryan Reynolds Charles Taylor - Willem Dafoe Jane Lawrence - Emily Watson Kelly - Carrie-Anne Moss Addison - Ioan Gruffudd Young Jane - Hayden Panetierre Young Michael - Cayden Boyd Ryne Taylor - Shannon Lucio Jimmy Lawrence - George Newbern Christopher Lawrence - Chase Ellison Leslie Lawrence - Brooklyn Proulx

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