Judge Patrick Bromley reads the newspaper obituary column every morning, just to see whether he's listed.
A comedy that puts the fun back in funeral.
I can remember hearing about writer-director Michael Clancy's black comedy, Eulogy, when it played the 2004 Sundance Film Festival: pictures of the cast appearing together, write-ups about the film, and general buzz could be found in all of the various movie-related publications. Then, just a few short weeks after Sundance had passed, I suddenly stopped hearing about it. The movie disappeared off the radar.
Eventually, Eulogy did play in very limited release (22 screens), never making its way to my hometown of Chicago and therefore never again registering in my movie-going consciousness. It now resurfaces, thanks to Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
When the patriarch of the Collins family (Rip Torn, Love Object) suddenly passes away, his children and grandchildren come together to say goodbye and squabble with one another while his granddaughter (Zooey Deschanel, All the Real Girls) struggles to write his eulogy. That's pretty much it.
Is dysfunction itself inherently funny? Is placing clashing personalities and types together in a confined space, then letting them do nothing but go at each other for 90 minutes, enough to sustain a comedy? I'm not sure that it is. Yes, dysfunction can be funny, but there has to be something more to it. We have to see how the conflict affects the lives or environments of the dysfunctional—how it informs them as people. Bickering is not enough.
So it is with Eulogy, a new-ish comedy that, unfortunately, seems to subscribe to the notion that family fighting is funny in and of itself. The things the Collinses say aren't necessarily funny (though sometimes they are), the things they do aren't necessarily funny (though sometimes they are), they themselves are not necessarily funny (though some of them are), and yet because they do not get along, we are meant to laugh. Is it enough that Kelly Preston (basically reprising her Citizen Ruth character) is playing a lesbian, who seems to be totally at odds with the conservative "family values" held by her sister, played by Debra Winger (Urban Cowboy, here channeling Marcia Gay Harden)? No. We expect these characters to disapprove of one another's lifestyles. Genuine humor has to go deeper than that. To the movie's credit, it tries to do so, but its ideas of how the relationship should pay off are clumsy and misguided—they don't make what's come before any funnier, just illogical.
It would be easy to point out similarities Eulogy shares with another screwed-up family comedy-drama, Wes Anderson's wonderful The Royal Tenenbaums, but those comparisons are unwarranted. The Royal Tenenbaums worked because its characters were fully realized and could each have existed independently from the rest; they were given real life and breath, clashing with one another because they truly were wildly different people. The family members in Eulogy aren't given separate personalities—their only character trait, shared or individual, is that they don't get along with one another. What comedy there is, then, doesn't come from the characters themselves—it's forced upon them through circumstance and contrivance. For example, Mom (Piper Laurie, Carrie) repeatedly tries to commit suicide, but that particular character quirk isn't explored for humor; in fact, it isn't even presented all that comedically. Instead, the joke becomes that she's always trying kill herself at inopportune times, so that her attempts become embarrassing moments for her family (primarily the Deschanel character and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, played by Swimfan's Jesse Bradford). I suppose there are some viewers who might find that notion to be much funnier than just the premise, but true black comedy (which I'm fairly certain this movie is shooting for) would require that death be funny—not just pratfalls and embarrassment. Those are reserved for Ben Stiller movies.
This isn't to say that Eulogy is a total waste of time, because it isn't—any film with this cast is, at the very least, worth a look. The always-reliable Hank Azaria (Mystery Men) is good for a few laughs playing Deschanel's father, a former child actor who's now all washed up (sure, the bit with the catchphrase is entirely too reminiscent of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, but at least Clancy has the sense to use it contextually within scenes and mines some laughs from it). I might argue, however, that Azaria is cast too far against type—he's the closest thing to a straight man in the movie next to Deschanel, who's equally misplaced in a too-straight role that fails to make use of what she has to offer.
Those particular instances of misguided casting (Azaria's always good, but might have been better in another role) are balanced out, though, by the inspired casting of TV comedian Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond, Welcome to Mooseport) as older brother Skip. Romano doesn't really do anything different from his usual deadpan mope shtick, but the context is different—he's darker and funnier, sliding more easily into the material rather than making it conform to him. There's proof here that, should he be smart about picking the right kinds of scripts and the right kinds of supporting and character roles, Romano can have a real film career.
Eulogy is (finally) available to interested filmgoers on DVD—which, I suppose, would make them filmwatchers—courtesy of Lions Gate. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 playback. It looks and sounds (thanks to a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track) perfectly acceptable and wholly unremarkable—the technical aspects of the disc are a great deal like the movie itself in that way. The only extras on the disc are a handful of scenes that have been either cut out or trimmed down for the finished film, meaning we've got to sit through passages that are largely familiar for nothing but a few extra lines; the scenes don't exactly work on their own, and their inclusion in the movie wouldn't have made a difference. As usual with a Lions Gate release, several bonus trailers are also on hand.
It's easy to see why Eulogy failed to make its expected post-Sundance splash. It's a few shades too dark and offbeat for the mainstream Hollywood track, but lacks the edge and indie credibility to hit with the festival crowds. It's a movie without an audience. The screenplay tries too hard in some spots; in others, not hard enough—it's too uneven, with an excellent cast floundering in material that, for the most part, fails to meet them halfway. This is a movie unable to find itself.
The jury's hung on this one. Let's write it off and move on.
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