An imperfect but satisfying progression from the campy bad-taste comedy of his prior features “Fat Girls” and “Mangus!,” Ash Christian’s “Petunia” offers family mega-dysfunction in the cruelly funny mode of Todd Solondz, albeit with a bit less bile (and punch). While the overall feel is a bit derivative and contrived, there are nonetheless plenty of bitingly sharp lines and performance moments to keep this well-cast ensemble piece percolating along. Sales are sure to spread wider than for helmer’s earlier efforts, from arthouse distribution to cable.
Charlie Petunia (Tobias Segal) is a perpetual nervous wreck, and no wonder; as the youngest and most conciliatory member of his New York clan, he’s constantly mortified by his family’s crass behavior, particularly when he’s acting as a buffer between two psychotherapist parents (Christine Lahti, David Rasche) who can barely speak to one another. Taking their long-soured union as an example, Charlie hopes to avoid further emotional pain by remaining celibate, a plan everyone else finds ridiculous. But then, sex seems to do nothing but get them into trouble.
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Eldest sib Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has just married g.f. Vivian (Thora Birch), but this starts to look like a mistake as early as the limo ride from wedding reception to hotel room. His desire to settle down chafes against her Manhattan party-girl instincts, and that conflict is only exacerbated when she discovers she’s pregnant, news that awakens no latent maternal yearnings whatsoever. Worse, she’s not sure whether the father is Michael or his artist brother, Adrian (Jimmy Heck), a sex addict who has lately developed “Love Tourette’s,” meaning that in the middle of casual congress with near-anonymous partners, he disconcertingly shouts “I love you!”
Against his better judgment, Charlie gets sucked into a romance with Vivian’s cousin George (Michael Urie), who happens to live one floor below him. Imagine his surprise upon discovering that George shares that apartment with wife Robin (Brittany Snow), a woman of infinite suppressed rage who exorcises her frustrations over his neglect and gay affairs via a punitive regimen of anorexia and long-distance jogging.
There’s a lot of grotesque entertainment value in these twisted entanglements, rendered more amusingly loopy than mean-spirited by Christian’s flair for the quip and a cast that wisely chooses to play it all (relatively) naturalistically. There’s one outright dud sequence (a performance-art spoof that looks about 25 years out of date), but also some brightly envelope-pushing setpieces (notably Lahti’s extremely uptight matriarch going on an Ecstasy-fueled club bender), and the whole thing moves along with an admirable, eventful briskness.
While one could argue there’s too much string pulling going on, the helmer/co-scribe’s affection for his characters narrowly pulls off a happily-ever-after fade for all — one sharp detour from the influence of Solondz, which otherwise is hard to ignore throughout.
Among expertly turned perfs, stage thesp Segal is a standout, even as he risks coming closest to neurotic caricature. Though the color looked a bit washed-out in Frameline’s digital projection, lensing and editing do a resourceful job glossing over the pic’s budgetary production limitations; the synth-based score, not so much.