Yet another dysfunctional-family dramedy, “Birds of America” doesn’t distinguish itself enough in mildly diverting character or incident to take flight. Matthew Perry stars as the sanest of three Connecticut siblings in Canadian novelist Elyse Friedman’s script, ably directed by playwright-turned-film helmer Craig Lucas. But the pic ends up feeling more like the season finale of a fairly interesting, somewhat derivative HBO series than stand-alone screen fare. Theatrical biz will be tepid, ancillary better.
Morrie Tananger (Perry) is a college professor living in the house where he grew up, with spouse Betty (Lauren Graham). They want to start a family — at least she does — but he keeps putting that off until they’re on surer financial footing, notably via overdue tenure he hopes to be offered by his neighbor, department superior and alleged best friend Paul (Gary Wilmes). Paul and his chirpy wife (Hilary Swank) form a too-perfect couple the Tanangers can’t afford to alienate.
Morrie’s tightly controlled life is perhaps a defensive tactic, allaying fears he might someday succumb to the mental instability that afflicted his late parents and still plagues the younger siblings he was forced to raise from his earliest adulthood. Worse, at this unfortunate moment, when tenure seems imminent and appearances are everything, those siblings turn up in full chaotic force.
Brother Jay (Ben Foster), found beaten and living in a ravine, has adopted a Christlike mission of sacrifice that crosses the line into provoking strangers and giving away possessions not his own. Reluctantly moving back into the family home, his return soon draws a visit from kindred-spirit sister Ida (Ginnifer Goodwin), a would-be photographer who drowns her own demons in booze and sex. They’re like feral animals to the very square Betty, who’s tolerated them with gritted teeth in the past. But her patience wears thin as both “kids” find ways to rile the easily ruffled boss and wife next door.
The characters and the dynamics between them are moderately engaging, but never compelling or hilarious. Directing someone else’s material, Lucas, as he did in helming the underrated 2006 movie of his stage play “The Dying Gaul,” proves an assured craftsman, but the material just isn’t original or affecting enough to be memorable. Any number of vaguely similar recent exercises, from “Little Miss Sunshine” to the lesser-sung likes of “Margot at the Wedding” and “Running with Scissors” mined dysfunctional family fun in bolder strokes.
Perfs are solid, including Swank’s first support turn in years, but no one makes a standout impression. Production package is handsome, with widescreen HD lensing hard to differentiate from 35mm.
Sundance press notes begged journalists to avoid revealing the film’s ending, though it’s nondescript, bearing the air of resolution while in fact wrapping up none of plot’s major dilemmas.