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.
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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.