The portmanteau word “friendsgiving” has been in the popular American lexicon for over a decade now, though the institution it describes is far, far older. Surely for as long as families have been gathering to bond, feast and drive each other gradually crazy over Thanksgiving, the option of a less fractious holiday spent with kith rather than kin has been on the table. Yet the takeaway, such as it is, from Nicol Paone’s sketchy, loose-knit ensemble comedy “Friendsgiving” is that there ultimately isn’t much difference between the two: Turkey Day, it seems, is a recipe for conflict with or without blood relatives in attendance.
It’s a premise that “Friendsgiving” contrives by clumping together a pick-and-mix of mismatched, eccentric characters whom you can’t imagine ever willingly hanging out in the first place; whatever history or chemistry binds them is largely lost in the boozy haze of a slender screenplay. With friends like these, who needs friends? Well, our heroine Molly (Malin Akerman), apparently: A semi-famous actor and recently divorced single mom, she has a career on the up, an adorable baby and a vast house in plush Los Angeles suburbia, though we’re told repeatedly that she’s in a tailspin. Cue a big social blowout on Thanksgiving, so she can shake out the cobwebs and be her best self. In a more carefully conceived comedy, we might be able to detect the difference: Heavier on high spirits than actual humor, this undemanding, Ben Stiller-produced film settles for sitcom-level catharsis and lessons learned.
At least a single, faintly plausible relationship underpins the carousel of quirk that comes wheeling through Molly’s door on a balmy November afternoon. A photo-album opening credit sequence helpfully outlines the connection between Molly and her childhood best friend (and now roommate) Abby (Kat Dennings), a lightly caustic, newly-out lesbian still reeling from a breakup with her first female partner. Molly and Abby’s initial plan for the holiday is simply to eat their feelings together with only the former’s infant son for company. However, when Molly invites vivacious mutual friend Lauren (Aisha Tyler) to join them after her family’s travel plans fall through, and further extends the invitation to her puppyish British rebound lover Jeff (Jack Donnelly), the floodgates are opened and the house party builds.
Abby is less than thrilled: Within the film’s first 20 minutes, an argument between her and Molly flares and is resolved, only to be rinsed and recycled more than once in the next hour-plus. As one alleged friend after another turns up, you’d be hard pressed to describe most of them in more than a phrase: One’s a skeezy straight man, one’s an anxious gay man, one’s a dippy New Age kook, one can’t speak through her copious Botox. One isn’t even a friend: Molly’s estranged, perma-horny Swedish mother (Jane Seymour, sporting an accent one notch above the Swedish Chef on the authenticity meter) arrives unannounced to bring an extra dose of aggravation to proceedings.
What ensues isn’t a narrative so much as a series of ongoing, haphazard squabbles, amounting to some broad, noncommittal morals: Romance is hard, so is parenting, and good friends will somehow see you through it all. This vagueness of purpose wouldn’t matter much if the film were genuinely, raucously funny, but comedian-turned-filmmaker Paone’s best gags are the kind to raise a smile rather than a laugh. A shrooms-ingesting setup leads to nothing more outrageous than some light making-out in the bathroom; a girls’ talk about anal sex is curbed before matters escalate even to bachelorette-party levels of filth. An ensemble of able comic performers carries the material without electrifying it. Even the reliably zippy Dennings struggles to find the thread of a character who’s a flailing alcoholic in one scene and a tart straight-shooter in the next.
Still, there’s as little here to dislike as there is to truly admire. From Neil Shapiro’s California-bright-even-at-night lensing to a non-stop, chugging soundtrack of Cheesecake Factory pop muzak, the filmmaking shoots for a sense of bland, non-specific pleasantness. If nothing else, in a year when any kind of Thanksgiving gathering is out of bounds for many Americans, this aimless, painless film just about evokes the sense of conviviality they’ll be missing, passive-aggressive imperfections and all.