Revisiting the landmark 1973 documentary series “An American Family” serves as such a timely, provocative idea it’s a shame the result, “Cinema Verite,” isn’t a better, more fully realized movie. An idyllic exterior seemingly crumbled over 10 hours as the Loud family invited PBS, of all networks, into their lives, revealing cracks in the couple’s marriage and introducing America to their flamboyantly gay son Lance — a shocking image for its time. Beyond a marvelous central performance by Diane Lane, alas, the movie provides a meticulous replica of those events without adding much insight or devoting enough time to their aftermath.
As parents to a large, noisy brood of kids, the Santa Barbara-based Louds were seemingly ideal candidates for an anthropological study of a single family, an idea producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) models after Margaret Mead’s examinations of indigenous tribes. Once they’ve agreed, though, it’s clear wife Pat (Lane) has been overlooking the infidelities of her well-tanned, often-traveling husband Bill (Tim Robbins), naively hoping the camera’s presence will somehow keep him home and faithful.
Lance, meanwhile (also wonderfully played by an underused Thomas Dekker), has departed for New York, where — in the first days of taping — he takes his uncomfortable mother to a drag show. The notion that Lance outed himself to the family during the show is presented as one of the lingering misperceptions surrounding the project, along with the idea the cameras were responsible for fracturing the Louds’ relationship.
Working from a script by David Seltzer, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are so eager to showcase how impeccably they’ve recreated the material they weave snippets of archival footage throughout the movie, essentially dividing the pic into chapters. Other than Lane, though, that approach never bridges the distance from the characters, resulting in a final product that qualifies as HBO-worthy based primarily on the marquee power of its leads.
The fact that “American Family” is widely considered the precursor to the modern reality TV genre also seems oddly quaint, given that a single camera crew consisting of a young married couple (played by Shanna Collins and “Almost Famous’?” Patrick Fugit) shot almost everything, forcing them to make advance choices about which family members to follow. Bill, in fact, is strangely miffed he can’t garner more attention.
Similarly, Gilbert becomes uncomfortably friendly with Pat, who at times becomes the de facto producer, seeking to dictate what will or won’t make the final cut. Eventually, those tensions grow more severe, with Gilbert realizing — like any good reality producer — that her feelings and fidelity to actuality might have to be sacrificed on the altar of drama, insisting he’ll “shoot what I need to make a successful film.”
Still, what finally emerges is less a commentary on today’s entertainment than simply an uncanny reenactment. And from a dramatic standpoint, the movie gives relatively short shrift to the most poignant and untold aspect of the story — namely, how the Louds felt and responded to having their lives thrown open to the public and dissected by sniping pundits.
“Cinema Verite” harbors some merit, and is worth seeing if only for Lane. That said, it’s a disappointingly shallow treatment considering the wealth of potential within the premise and period. And while Gandolfini’s producer pitches the show as a “brave new experiment,” “Cinema Verite” finally proves a rather tepid, unadventurous movie.