The Adoration of Kathleen Turner in The Perfect Family

'Body Heat' star takes familial turn in ecclesial cinematic essay

Good movies with a point of view are as hard to produce as winning lottery tickets. Kathleen Turner has produced one that is vital and amusing and well worth seeing. It’s called The Perfect Family and it’s about a family that is anything but. Easy as a sigh, the accomplished, charismatic and multifaceted actress is also the star. Kudos all around.

In The Perfect Family, she plays Eileen Cleary, a devout, self-obsessed Catholic so enslaved by dogma and ritual that she crosses herself and gives thanks to God before she so much as eats a vegetarian tamale. She’s been dedicating herself to the church for so many years that when her priest (Richard Chamberlain) nominates Eileen for “Catholic Woman of the Year,” she knows it’s a sign from God. She just has to win this coveted title because she deserves it. After all, her life is filled with prayer meetings, charitable works, everyday mass, meals on wheels, administering to shut-ins, passing out communion wafers—almost always at her own family’s expense.

The award is the thing Eileen covets more than a week of Sundays. It will go to the perfect wife and mother with the perfect family, and the Archbishop of Dublin is flying over to present it personally. The winner’s reward will be the prayer of absolution. Translated, that means all sins are forgiven. Now here’s the rub, and it rubs Eileen’s heart with sheer terror. I mean, the Clearys are guilty of so many sins they’ve stopped counting. Now they must prepare for an “in home” visit—to make sure the family is “beyond reproach.” Watching Kathleen Turner genuflect her way through a pack of lies while she deals with the obstacles her “perfect family” throws in her path, like road kill in the headlights of a speeding train, is one of the year’s funniest pleasures.

How can she ever explain to the prying nuns and priests arriving for inspection that her husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic who forgets to hide his A.A. literature from the dining room table, her son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) is a fireman who has left his wife for a manicurist and her daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is gay, five months pregnant and planning a same-sex marriage to her longtime partner (Angelique Cabral)? Worrying herself sick over the kids, the church, the award and the forthcoming gay wedding, which she manages to wreck by fleeing the ceremony on foot when the two women are pronounced husband and wife, Eileen finally goes ballistic. Watching Kathleen Turner go ballistic is something you can’t afford to miss. Fed up with the deceptions and the pretense, Frank packs up and leaves. “What am I supposed to say?” wails the matriarch of dysfunction, “my daughter is a lesbian who is having a turkey-baster baby?”

While she tries to sort out the sordid detritus in a falling-apart life that is exploding faster than ammo from an Uzi, Agnes Dunn, Eileen’s prissy chief rival for the Catholic Woman of the Year Award, is circulating a petition to “Protect Our Children” from gay adoption laws. This places Eileen in the middle of a religious, legal, community and personal dilemma. “What do you think?” someone asks. “I don’t have to think. I’m a Catholic,” says Eileen. I laughed like a loon, but I wouldn’t take any bets on how many others will follow. This movie is almost guaranteed to offend the humorless, but what a shame it would be to miss it. The resolutions seem a bit cut and dried, and I doubt if many people will agree that a religious medal of honor is worth sacrificing one’s family to win. But the issues are very pertinent and very vital. It takes a real tragedy to teach Eileen that it’s OK not to be perfect, especially when she at last confesses she’s not so perfect herself. In the final scene I found myself laughing and crying at the same time.

Despite the genuine humor that pops up in unexpected corners of almost every scene, this movie has a lot to say about misplaced faith, poisonous religious hypocrisy and real family values. The characters in the bright, poignant screenplay by Claire V. Riley and Paula Goldberg are fully alive, they are well assembled and photographed in Andre Lascaris’ crisp, beautiful cinematography, director Anne Renton handles them all with the sensitivity of a good human-interest story, and the first-cabin cast is uniformly excellent. But when all is said and assimilated, Kathleen Turner is all the perfection The Perfect Family needs.

rreed@observer.com

 

THE PERFECT FAMILY
Running time 84 minutes
Written by Paula Goldberg
and Claire V. Riley
Directed by Anne Renton
Starring Emily Deschanel, Kathleen Turner and Jason Ritter

The Adoration of Kathleen Turner in The Perfect Family