George (Jack Heller), the aging thespian paterfamilias of the clan of hams in Henry Jaglom’s new film (based on his 2009 stage production, with a title taken from the George M. Cohan musical), disdains working on TV or in dinner theater. Compared to this movie, however, these would be preferable alternatives.
Set up as a play within a movie, the story takes place over some 24 hours at the family summer home, which, in an ill-judged stab at reflexivity, is revealed to be a set in Los Angeles (that would be about six hours by plane from the avenue of broken dreams). George, nicknamed “Misha” to establish his Chekhovian credibility, is a whiner addicted to popping Ambien, fulminating about the art of acting, and uttering such sage insights as “One thing I can tell you: Nothing stays the same. It changes.” His wife, Vivien (Diane Salinger), has a gift for instantly raising her voice several octaves to a painful shriek to express feigned emotion. Their younger daughter, Pandora, her name alluding to the Greek bringer of discord, or perhaps to the online music site, is played by Tanna Frederick as a cross between Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” and Carrot Top. She embodies the free spirit that is the antithesis of safe rationality; in other words, she can shift from one fake, hyperbolic emotion to the next at the drop of a line. Then there’s Uncle Larry (David Proval), also an actor, who’s embittered about a career of minor roles, which is ironic because his character is a minor role. Finally, there’s Sally (Harriet Schock), on hand in part because it’s really funny to have someone with a Southern accent say “seder.”
Into this awkwardly orchestrated nest of noisy neurotics comes the older daughter, Betsy (Julie Davis), who left the crazy household in search of something “normal,” like real estate. She returns accompanied by her “normal” fiancé James, played by Judd Nelson with a sorrow and discomfort that says, “After John Hughes, now this?” He serves as our proxy in appreciating with awed reaction shots and exclamations of delight this wonderful make-believe world that he has discovered. Want to bet he finds the manic pixie dream girl more appealing than the joyless shrew?
How Chekhovian. But a little derivative of Woody Allen as well, especially with the device of punctuating the action with vintage tunes, as in a scene with a drunk stumbling over a fence backed by “Don’t Fence Me In” on the soundtrack. After venting for four acts or so it would seem that the play and the characters didn’t have any gears left, but the last act of inevitable confrontations and revelations aspires to the subtleties of “The Jerry Springer Show.” Perhaps Jaglom is guilty of the imitative fallacy, forgetting that although Chekhov may have written plays about mediocrity and banality, he wasn’t mediocre and banal himself.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.