An interesting premise and a good cast are wasted in this misbegotten black comedy.

An interesting premise and a good cast are wasted in the misbegotten black comedy “The Family Tree,” the feature debut of Finland-born, U.S.-based helmer Vivi Friedman. Even more of a misfire than “Miss Nobody,” the other American indie the producers made available for world preem at the Seattle Film Festival, “Tree’s” tale of a dysfunctional family made functional thanks to Mom’s temporary amnesia, a home invasion and a lucky bullet suffers from severe problems of tone, a surfeit of undeveloped plot points and characters, and bland direction. Large cast of past, present and future talents might create curiosity value in ancillary.

How dysfunctional is the unhappy Burnett clan? Well, as the pic opens, rich bitch Bunnie (Hope Davis); her downtrodden businessman hubby, Jack (Dermot Mulroney); and their sullen, sexually provocative daughter, Kelly (Britt Robertson), and gun-toting religious zealot son, Eric (Max Thieriot), are being dismissed by their family therapist.

When Bunnie hits her head while engaged in mildly kinky sex with next-door neighbor Simon (Chi McBride), she loses her memory and reverts to a state of newlywed niceness, much to the confusion of her family and Simon, as well as Simon’s teen son, Josh (Evan Ross), who also seems to have something going with Bunnie. Meanwhile, a peeping tom accidentally hangs himself from the family’s tree; Eric joins a weird Christian youth group led by a louche, NRA-friendly preacher (Keith Carradine) but winds up befriending a mohawked pothead (John Patrick Amedori); and Kelly inspires the affections of a disabled lesbian classmate (Madeline Zima) who has been carrying on with their history teacher (Selma Blair).

As if this weren’t already more than enough, scribe Mark Lisson (one of the pic’s many producers) further overeggs the coarse casserole with awkward subplots involving Jack’s co-workers (Gabrielle Anwar, Christina Hendricks), some teen thugs (Bow Wow, Jermaine Williams), and Bunnie’s mother (Jane Seymour).

Alternating soulful medium shots with clumsy action scenes, director Friedman fails to find a unique tone that might hold the script’s ungainly mashup together. Instead, intermittent voiceover narration by Eric is employed to paper over the cracks.

Although this couldn’t be considered one of her best roles, Davis gamely essays Bunnie’s two distinct personalities. Of the younger thesps, photogenic Thieriot and amiable Amedori make the strongest impression. Carradine, Anwar, Blair, Seymour and Hendricks have relatively little to do, while Bow Wow and Williams chew the scenery.

Low budget tech credits are nothing special, with editing sometimes so blunt it feels as if the production didn’t have enough coverage.

The Family Tree

Production

A Driving Lessons production. Produced by Alan Jones, J. Todd Harris, Kathy Weiss, Mark Lisson. Executive producers, Robert Griffin, Marc Toberoff. Co-executive producers, Robert Hale, Mark Donadio, Miriam Marcus. Co-producer, Stephanie Johnson. Directed by Vivi Friedman. Screenplay, Mark Lisson.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Joplin Wu; editors, Seth Flaum, Justine Halliday; music, Stacey Hersh; production designer, Jesse Benson; costume designer, Kelle Kutsugeras; sound (Dolby Digital), Tony Smyles; associate producers, Lisa Looney, Marc Marcum; casting, Veronica Rooney. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival (New American Cinema), June 13, 2010. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Chi McBride, Max Thieriot, Britt Robertson, John Patrick Amedori, Evan Ross, Keith Carradine, Madeline Zima, Gabrielle Anwar, Selma Blair, Christina Hendricks, Bow Wow, Jermaine Williams, Jane Seymour.
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