Family Dysfunction: Petunia Epitomizes the American Dream Gone Sour

An edgy view of the breeding grounds of contemporary New York pretentiousness

Christine Lahti and Tobias Segal.

Christine Lahti and Tobias Segal.

At the movies, dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen, but in the episodic, fitfully amusing comedy Petunia, you get the most offbeat family of wackos since The Hotel New Hampshire. The Petunias are a family of New York neurotics who epitomize the American Dream gone sour. The film is too pokily paced and annoyingly episodic to hold interest for a sustained period of time, but a first-class cast renders random relief from boredom.

The Petunia family consists of three sons with so many problems that their meddling parents retire to their bed of anxiety from time to time with understandable headaches, frustration and impotence. Mom and Dad are Felicia and Percy Petunia (Christine Lahti and David Rasche), two psychiatrists who are desperately in need of therapy themselves. Their grown boys in various stages of arrested development who have never managed to claw their way out of puberty are Adrian Petunia (Jimmy Heck), a sex addict who amasses an art collection of vagina paintings; Michael Petunia (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a loser whose cynical, pregnant wife Vivian (Thora Birch) thinks their forthcoming baby might be Adrian’s; and Charlie Petunia (Tobias Segal), the gay brother who cannot get laid but falls madly in love anyway with Vivian’s cousin George (Michael Urie, currently delighting New York theatergoers as the star of the runaway one-man hit show Buyer & Cellar), who is already married to fitness guru Robin (Brittany Snow) but is not opposed to sharing his bed with both of them at the same time. Despite the orgasmic force that drives every character in the film, it is blushingly reticent about showing any kind of nudity, which blights the endless sexual configurations with as much impotence as that suffered by Mr. Petunia, but you get the picture.

The dinner table has always been the nervous-breakdown setting of choice for dysfunctional families, but the mother in this one literally lies in wait for every Petunia meal to unload her best sarcasm. She solicits one dinner guest to date rape her son Charlie, tells Michael’s wife, “Marriage is like committing suicide every single day of your life,” and collapses in tears shrieking, “I haven’t had sex in eight years!” Everybody in the movie is starving for love but turns toxic when anyone says “I love you.” Christine Lahti gets the best lines, turning up the volume on her dormant libido with Botox, bongs and ecstasy before mournfully confessing, “I’m no longer the entrée. I’m just the garnish now—the parsley.” After Michael breaks both arms throwing himself out of a window (only a second-floor window, to get attention), he tells his mother, “I’m really not happy,” and summoning her protective maternal instinct as well as her professional analytical abilities, she says, “Nobody’s happy, sweetie, they’re just pretending.”

It’s a prickly premise for a sitcom, and director Ash Christian, who co-wrote the screenplay with Theresa Bennett, provides an edgy view of the breeding grounds of contemporary New York pretentiousness, like meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous and a schizo performance-art play in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But while Petunia aims to add smart fuel to the flames of vastly superior dysfunctional-family films like Igby Goes Down and Running with Scissors, it’s too sketchy to leave much of an impression, and an epilogue set three months later, showing who ends up with whom, seems listlessly contrived. Petunia augurs more titillation than it delivers and only works occasionally.

 rreed@observer.com

PETUNIA

Written by Ash Christian and Theresa Bennett

Directed by Ash Christian

Starring Thora Birch, Brittany Snow and Eddie Kaye Thomas

Running time: 112 mins.

Rating: 2/4 stars