A dynamite Kathleen Turner desperately strives to be named "Catholic Woman of the Year" in tyro helmer Anne Renton's feel-good religious laffer "The Perfect Family."

A dynamite Kathleen Turner desperately strives to be named “Catholic Woman of the Year” in tyro helmer Anne Renton’s feel-good religious laffer “The Perfect Family.” Tonally, the film jumps all over the place, leaping from comedy to tragedy to hug-dispensing sentimentality. But watching a consummate pro like Turner navigate an uneven script, veering from farcical determination, her cheeks puffed like those of a demented chipmunk, to utter devastation, can be immensely entertaining, particularly when she’s backed by an able cast, as she is here. Despite pic’s potentially controversial pro-gay religious stance, distrib chances look lively.

Eileen Cleary (Turner) has dedicated her life to the church, delivering food to the housebound, helping dispense communion as an altar woman and serving on endless committees. Nominated as “Catholic Woman of the Year” by her priest, Monsignor Murphy (a brogue-affecting, post-“Thorn Birds” Richard Chamberlain), she first seems merely pleased at the prospect, until she learns that it carries the gift of absolution from all past sins, at which point winning becomes an all-out obsession.

There is one small rub: Candidates must throw a dinner for the Archbishop to show off their perfect Catholic families, and Mrs. Cleary’s is anything but. Husband Frank (Michael McGrady, bringing surprising charisma to his nice-guy role) is a recovering alcoholic; lesbian daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is pregnant and about to marry g.f. Angela (Angelique Cabral); and son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter, excellent in a potentially one-note part) is estranged from his wife and two kids and is having an affair with a Protestant manicurist (Kristen Dalton).

Although peppered with too-infrequent but unforgettable one-liners delivered by Turner (“I don’t have to think, I’m Catholic!”), the script by Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley more often derives mild physical comedy from innocuous jokes on ritual piety: Mrs. Cleary hastily kicks some spilled communion wafers under a pew, then gobbles them up to hide the evidence. More comic mileage is generated by the rivalry between Mrs. Cleary and her longtime nemesis, Agnes Dunn (a magnificently sanctimonious Sharon Lawrence), and by the interaction between Turner and Elizabeth Pena as the warm, wry, all-accepting mother of the other bride.

As a woman who slowly comes to realize she is destroying what she loves most, Turner’s tour-de-force perf meshes the absurdity of her actions with the desperation of her cause. But Deschanel’s lesbian-daughter role, in particular, is diminished by the pic’s graceless lurching from genteel “Sister Act”-type humor to impassioned, melodramatic gay-rights advocacy.

The pic’s main agenda, preaching religious tolerance toward gays, is rarely presented as even remotely humorous (turkey-baster gags notwithstanding) and often clashes with the pic’s comic setups, as helmer Renton never finds a level of stylization that incorporates both.

Tech credits never transcend the tidy TV-movie level

The Perfect Family

Production

A Certainty Films presentation of a Present Pictures production. Produced by Jennifer Rubin, Cora Olson. Executive producers, Connie Cummings, Kathleen Turner, Anne Renton. Directed by Anne Renton. Screenplay, Paula Goldberg, Claire V. Riley; story, Riley.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Andre Lascaris; editor, Christopher Knoll; music, Andrew Kaiser; music supervisor, Janine Scalise; production designer, Megan Hutchison; costume designer, Oneita Parker; sound, Phillip Perpich, Richard "Tricky" Kitting; supervising sound editor, Brent Findley; casting, Ronnie Yeskel. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 27, 2011. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter, Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Lawrence, Elizabeth Pena, Michael McGrady, Angelique Cabral, Shannon Cochran, Kristen Dalton.

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