Bridey Elliott’s debut feature as writer-director is an idiosyncratic goof whose primary interest lies in seeing her parents and sibling (she’s the daughter of comedian Chris Elliott) play presumably warped caricatures of themselves. The in-joke air can only float this enterprise so far, however. In the end, there’s not enough of distinction or substance to make this absurdist family comedy with a haunted-house angle feel like more than a short’s worth of ideas stretched too thin. Commercial prospects will be modest at best for a film whose near-square aspect ratio and improvisational-skit feel intended for the smallest possible screens.
A nonsensical much-ado-about-nothing tenor is established immediately as Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott) and Ted (Chris Elliott) drive along a lonely country road at night. She’s frantically looking for something that turns out to be no more than a shoe she thinks fell out of the car earlier — but she views this as crisis enough to visit the local police station, where the officer on duty fails to grasp the matter’s gravity (or so she thinks).
The next-day arrival of daughters Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (the director) furthers the impression that this entire clan is wildly self-absorbed and a bit daft. Dad is a well-known actor, though we glean his career has cooled of late. The girls are erstwhile child stars who had their own TV series (“The Sweet Sisters”) and are both still in the industry — though it’s blond, looks-obsessed Julie who’s doing well now, while underemployed Riley strikes tortured-artist postures. Only Mom has no celebrity value, a lack all too often made glaringly clear to her as the others preen for attention.
The ostensible occasion for this reunion is the birthday of Reynolds family pet Ollie, a hound who seems understandably weary of his humans. No one quibbles when Dad calls him “the best of all of us.” But plenty of other issues inevitably bubble up, including Ted’s resentment over being fired from Julie’s new show (though it’s obvious he made himself unwelcome on-set), general disinterest in Julie’s imminent wedding to a much older producer and Riley’s unresolved lifetime of accusatory complaints. Everybody drinks (the parents to excess), performing family rituals that underline how competitive and variably mean they are — Ted being the high achiever in that last regard.
But the main focus here is on Clara, who’s eccentric enough already before she begins to be the object of urgent communications from the apparent ghost (Isidora Goreshter) of an unhappy woman for whom this handsome, sizable Connecticut country home was built long ago. As Mom becomes possessed — or is simply experiencing some kind of overdue mental tether-snapping — she becomes a potential threat to the lives of her oblivious, insufferable loved ones. A genially uncomplicated bystander to all this is Joe (Haley Joel Osment), the longtime family friend whom everyone nonetheless pretty much treats like a servant.
“Clara’s Ghost” is determinedly quirky, but its ideas are seldom all that original or funny, too often degenerating into rote scatological humor. Nonetheless, there’s a formative creative sensibility that seems on the verge of defining itself — something that never quite happens before the film ends, its anecdotal story having drifted nowhere in particular. Murphy has said she was aiming for something between celebrity-train-wreck reality-TV shows and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — a great concept but one that this film’s lowercase comedics don’t make enough of. The result is rather more like a skit variation on “Grey Gardens” before the money ran out — moderately rich people behaving dysfunctionally, but perhaps not with as much magnetic panache as they think.
Adding some muscle to this soft, semi-shapeless if fitfully amusing effort are Stella Mozgawa’s nervously percussive score, plus several sequences of off-putting food consumption and other activities that editor Patrick Lawrence whips into little eruptions of disturbing chaos à la “Mother!”