×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Better Living

Vibrant, snappy and surprisingly fresh, "Better Living" breathes a little life into the increasingly by-the-numbers genre of the dysfunctional-family comedy.

With:
Nora - Olympia Dukakis Tom/Tim - Roy Scheider Jack - Edward Herrmann Maryann - CathrineCorpeny Elizabeth - Deborah Hedwall Gail - Wendy Hoopes Junior - James Villemarie

Vibrant, snappy and surprisingly fresh, “Better Living” breathes a little life into the increasingly by-the-numbers genre of the dysfunctional-family comedy. While the dialogue at times feels a bit stilted, that’s more than compensated for by well-drawn, confidently portrayed characters. No morals taught or lessons learned here, just loud and spontaneous eruptions of well-earned character comedy. With an inspired marketing campaign, pic has strong sleeper potential.

Film focuses on a loony-bird mother and her three grown daughters, each of whom has coped with Mom’s battiness and Dad’s abuse in her own completely ineffective way. The movie comes off as a happy marriage between “Moonstruck” and the recent indie “Daytrippers.” It’s a rare film that tackles serious family issues with such utter irreverence.

Things kick off with a sex tryst between the smart but unambitious Gail (Wendy Hoopes) and her doltish b.f., Junior (James Villemarie), which is interrupted when Gail’s mother, Nora (Olympia Dukakis), takes a jackhammer to the basement of the family abode. Nora explains her half-baked home-improvement plan — to build a room in the ground so her family might one day “live better” — to her brother Jack (Edward Herrmann), a faithless priest who begrudgingly takes on the role of family counselor.

The family is as deeply damaged as its crumbling house. Gail’seldest sister, Elizabeth (Deborah Hedwall), an uninspired public defender with a temper and a foul mouth, serves as the family enforcer. Middle sister Maryann (Cathrine Corpeny) is an emotionally shellshocked crybaby who abandons her new child and loving husband for no good reason.

Why are these women in such bad shape? The answer is Tom (Roy Scheider), their father, an ex-cop who disappeared mysteriously 15 years ago and just as inexplicably is now returning home. But he doesn’t have a shred of compassion, and the only way he can display his faltering fatherly instinct is by commandeering Nora’s room-digging project. He ends up making a huge crater in the backyard while setting his family on a survivalist social experiment straight out of “Lord of the Flies.”

Each character responds to Tom differently: Gail wants to hug him, Elizabeth tries to shoot him, while Maryann cowers over the stove, stirring pasta sauce. Nora, meanwhile, denies that he is even her ex-husband.

If this all seems convoluted on paper, it doesn’t come off that way onscreen. These women want so desperately to come to terms with their loss of a husband and father that’s it’s completely believable they would take back the vile Tom and go along with his cockamamie schemes.Refusing to take the usual melodramatic approach to a story about unresolved family issues, director and co-scripter Max Mayer aims instead for something along the lines of the Marx Brothers. Pic’s carpe diem ending is the only time anything conventional enters the scenario.Thesping is first-rate across the boards. As the tough-love Elizabeth, Hedwall is terrific, and never loses sight of her character’s compassion. The pretty Hoopes displays a sweetness that is undercut with some whip-fast comic timing. Herrmann is in rare comic form as a priest who tells his niece that in her case suicide should be considered, while Schieder plays rigid without being stiff. Though she delivers some solid laughs and seems to be having a good time, Dukakis is the ensemble’s weak link, overdoing her character’s far-out disconnectedness.

Good piano jazz and marenge keep the tone airy and makes the film feel light on its feet. Lenser Kurt Lennig keeps the focus tight and gives the house an intimate, late-afternoon glow.

Better Living

Comedy

Production: A Goldheart Pictures production. Produced by Ron Kastner, Lemore Syvan, Max Mayer. Co-producer, Melissa M. Marr. Directed by Max Mayer. Screenplay, Mayer, George F. Walker, based on the play by Walker.

Crew: Camera, (color) Kurt Lennig; editor, Steve Silkenson; production designer, Mark Ricker; music, John Davis; music supervisor, Robin Urdang; costumes, Laura Bauer; casting, Walken/Jaffe Casting. Reviewed on videocassette, N.Y., Nov. 2, 1998. (In Hamptons Film Festival.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With: Nora - Olympia Dukakis Tom/Tim - Roy Scheider Jack - Edward Herrmann Maryann - CathrineCorpeny Elizabeth - Deborah Hedwall Gail - Wendy Hoopes Junior - James Villemarie

More Film

  • Daniel Craig

    Daniel Craig to Undergo Ankle Surgery After 'Bond 25' Injury

    Daniel Craig will undergo ankle surgery after sustaining an injury while filming “Bond 25.” “Daniel Craig will be undergoing minor ankle surgery resulting from an injury sustained during filming in Jamaica,” the franchise’s official Twitter account posted. “Production will continue whilst Craig is rehabilitating for two weeks post-surgery. The film remains on track for the [...]

  • Oh Mercy

    Cannes Film Review: 'Oh Mercy'

    It takes more than just watching “Oh Mercy” to understand exactly why Arnaud Desplechin was drawn to the subject matter of his latest movie, a reasonably engrossing police procedural with roots in a 2008 TV documentary. Something of an unexpected detour in the veteran director’s weighty career, the film combines multiple strands to paint a [...]

  • Spielberg's Amblin Chief Jeff Small on

    Listen: Spielberg's Amblin Chief on Making 'Movies in the Middle'

    With the sequel “A Dog’s Journey” now in theaters, Amblin Partners continues to find ways to release the kind of films that aren’t typical of what dominates American multiplexes these days. An follow-up to the 2017 surprise hit “A Dog’s Purpose,” “Journey” is just another example of the cinematic strategy evident at Amblin, the production [...]

  • I Lost My Body

    French Animation 'I Lost My Body' Tops Cannes Critics' Week Winners

    “I Lost My Body,” a dark French animated film from writer-director Jérémy Clapin, has come up trumps in this year’s Critics’ Week program at the Cannes Film Festival, taking the strand’s top honor, the Nespresso Grand Prize. The film, which follows a young man’s severed hand as it struggles to be reunited with its own, [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Talent Agents Blast Verve Agreement With Writers Guild

    The lead negotiator for Hollywood’s talent agencies has again blasted the Writers Guild and its recent agreement with the Verve agency — and cautioned other agencies against following suit. Verve defected from the major agencies on May 16 when it became the first sizable Hollywood talent agency to sign the WGA’s Code of Conduct. That [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content