There are a few droll moments sprinkled throughout “Birthmarked,” which merely highlight the dreariness of the many, many others that are not. Ostensibly a comedy, director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ film finds little actual humor in its tale of a married couple who decide to prove the supremacy of nurture over nature by raising their three children in ways contrary to their genetic make-up. Likable turns by Toni Collette and Matthew Goode may help it attract a modest audience, but they’re not enough to compensate for the material’s innate flatness.
In 1977, scientists Ben (Goode) and Catherine (Collette) bond over the question, “Could we have been anyone other than who we are?” To address that point, they devise a project to raise their progeny as the very people one wouldn’t expect them to be — all in order to prove that human influence is of far greater importance to a child’s development than hereditary factors. Thus, biological son Luke (Jordan Poole) is reared as an artist, adopted daughter Maya (Megan O’Kelly), hailing from a family of “idiots,” is trained to be an intellectual, and adopted son Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), born of violent crazies, is taught to be a pacifist. With funding from patron Randall P. Gertz (Michael Smiley), the clan retreats to Ben’s rural cabin for a lifetime of carefully documented home-schooling, all with the aid of a Russian assistant named Samsonov (Andreas Apergis).
From the set-up alone, it’s easy to deduce that Ben and Catherine’s confidence over their child-molding abilities will soon be exposed as misguided. And true to form, no sooner has the film began than Maurice is acting like a bully, Luke is exhibiting little creative talent and Maya is showing signs of stupidity. Fortunately, such predictability isn’t the immediate death knell for the film’s wit. A play staged by Luke based on a pornographic magazine he stole from Samsonov provides a few welcome inappropriate chuckles, as does Ben’s later, deadpan exclamation — upon learning from Getz that a rival Portuguese team is conducting an identical experiment — “Damn those Portuguese. Every time!”
To detail Ben and Catherine’s own upbringing, “Birthmarked” employs montages of “archival footage” narrated by Mrs. Tridek (Fionnula Flanagan, playing the assistant to Smiley’s conniving Gertz). Mrs. Tridek also dispenses expository voiceover throughout the film. Unfortunately, that device, like so many of the incidents found in Marc Tulin’s script, is more cutesy than outright amusing. As Gertz threatens to take away Ben and Catherine’s funding unless they confirm their hypothesis, the couple begins to come apart at the seams. Yet, just as with the sight of Catherine raging at Gertz by attacking his helicopter with an axe, the material comes across as too far-fetched to be taken seriously, and too bland to elicit laughs.
That assessment also pertains to Goode and Collette’s protagonists, whose commitment to their absurd cause makes them obvious fools, albeit not quite foolish enough to be funny. Though benefiting from Josée Deshaies’ warm cinematography and a score peppered with ’70s songs, Hoss-Desmarais’ direction is uneven, opting to avoid ludicrousness in favor of a mounting sentimentality that’s a bad fit for a story this silly. By its perfunctory where-are-they-now coda, “Birthmarked” makes plain that, in terms of tone and one-liners, it could have used more assured nurturing itself.