One of my reasons for loving indie movies is their ability to offer refuge to those talents cast away by the mechanics of the merciless Hollywood machinery. Women of a certain age see their roles dwindle. Like Goldie Hawn famously said in “The First Wives Club” (Hugh Wilson, 1996), “There are only three ages for women: babe, District Attorney, and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’” It is even more true when it comes to the movie business. Consider the case of Kathleen Turner.
Throughout the 80s decade, Turner inhabited a rarified place in the industry. She was a beautiful actress, equally adept at giving commanding performances and leading a box-office hit. Her winning stride began with “Body Heat” (Lawrence Kasdan, 1980), a femme fatale that has her way with an idiot lawyer played by William Hurt in a humid Florida neo-noir. “Romancing the Stone” (Robert Zebecks, 1984) and the sequel “Jewel of the Nile” (Lewis Teague, 1985) brought back the family adventure film. Mob satire “Prizzi’s Honor” (John Huston, 1985) revealed her as a worthy equal to Jack Nicholson. She got an Oscar nomination for the time-traveling drama “Peggy Sue Got Married” (Francis Ford Coppola'' (1986) and voiced animated temptress Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (Robert Zemeckis, (1988). She closed the decades-long streak with “The War of the Roses'' (Danny De Vito, 1989), a gleefully toxic marriage comedy.
Sure, there were a few duds along the way, but somehow, the misses take a higher toll on female stars. High-profile roles thinned out after the thriller “V.I. Warshawski'' (Jeff Kanew, 1991) failed to perform at the box office. If I remember correctly, there was even talk of the movie jump starting a franchise based on the best-selling novels of author Sara Paretsky, but it all came to naught. While her recurrent costar Michael Douglas kept anchoring big movies to the year 2000, Turner gravitated to lower-profile roles in more modest projects. Add to ageism some dire health issues. As the nineties came on, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It hindered her capacity to work. The tabloids had a field day criticizing her changing looks, despite being caused by the disease and its treatment, adding insult to injury.
Eileen (Kathleen Turner) strives for godliness in "The Perfect Family" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
My youthful cinephile crush on Mrs. Turner remains undiminished, and I have the “Prizzi’s Honor” Blu-ray to prove it. That is why my heart beats faster whenever I see her on my screen, especially in a movie that somehow missed my radar. She gets a meaty starring role in the indie comedy “A Perfect Family,” now streaming at Popflick. Not to be confused with a 2021 Spanish comedy of the same name, the movie came out in 2011, but far from being dated, its themes have even more resonance today.
Eileen Cleary (Turner) is a devotedly Christian woman who makes her entire personality helping out at church. She holds the hosts for the Father Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) while he gives communion, delivers on the Meals on Wheels program, and takes the sacraments to those confined at home. One good day, she is nominated for the Christian Woman of the Year Award. It comes with a certificate, a luncheon to celebrate the winner, and an absolution so powerful that it erases all your sins. Eileen should be a shoo-in, but she’s got competition from picture-perfect Agnes Dunn (a deliciously smarmy Sharon Lawrence). She must present her perfect Christian family to a visiting bishop, who will decide the winner.
And here’s the catch. Eileen’s family is far from the conservative Christian values she upholds so zealously. Her Husband, Frank (Michael McGrady), is a recovering alcoholic. Son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) is leaving the high school girlfriend he married after getting her pregnant. He has fallen in love with manicurist Theresa (Kristen Dalton). Kudos to Jason Ritter for making the most out of an underwritten role. You can see him taking advantage of a showcase lead role in “Good Dick,” also available to stream at Popflick.
(Un) Holy foe: Sharon Lawrence is a deliciously smarmy adversary in "The Perfect Family" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
The biggest obstacle remains unknown to Eileen, though not for long. Her daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel), a successful lawyer, is also a lesbian. She is also about to get married to her girlfriend Angela (Angelique Cabral) and is pregnant by in-vitro fertilization. “The Perfect Family” that would earn the prize, it ain’t.
Australian director Anne Renton shoots her first feature film with audiovisual language at its most basic. It is efficient enough to anticipate her upcoming long career in episodic TV. If we go by the information on IMDB, to this date, “The Perfect Family” remains her sole movie credit. Still, it is not without its charms. The principal is, of course, Kathleen Turner. It would be easy to make Eileen a cartoon, but she imbues her with pathos. You can see her reacting not out of spite but in ignorance. In a deft maneuver by screenwriters Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley, no church authority spouts rhetoric that pushes prejudice on Eileen. The antagonist role rests on Agnes, who competes for the prize, but also promotes an initiative to collect firms to support a bill outlawing adoption by gay parents. We have no hint that Agnes knows about her lesbian daughter, but by convincing her to sign, she drives a deeper wedge between them.
The movie may be simpleminded but makes all the right moves to appeal to conservatives, at least those who can consider possible that others can live by different moral codes. Eileen herself is not perfect. Why would she need all-encompassing indulgence? When we first meet her, she confesses a string of sins so flimsy they play as a joke. The revelation comes at the right time to work as a climactic big reveal and folds in with the other themes affecting the family. It is heartening to see that instead of working as a time capsule of the early aughts, the movie seems even more prescient now, with an uptick of political maneuvers against reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ community. If “The Perfect Family” were made today, perhaps one of Eileen’s kids would be transgender.
There is also the low-key validation of interracial families. Angela is Latina, and her family figures prominently in the pivotal wedding subplot. The late, great Elizabeth Peña plays her mother, Christina. Turner projects discomfort, but you can’t quite make it if it comes out of racial prejudice or shock at how accepting Angela’s family is of their relationship. It seems the filmmakers wanted to engage with this issue but blinked at the last moment, fearing making their protagonist too unlikeable. There’s a nifty bit of ironic casting, with Richard Chamberlain playing Monsigneur Murphy. The dashing leading man of the 70s and 80s is gay, and remained closeted until late in his career. He famously played a priest having a affair with an Australian cattle heiress in wildly popular TV miniseries "The Thorn Birds" (1983).
Oh, Father!: Turner gives the side-eye to Father Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) in "The Perfect Family" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
Curiously enough, the movie would make a great double feature with another Kathleen Turner film that skewers traditional views about motherhood and family. In 1994, Turner scored a hit with John Water’s “Serial Mom.” The iconoclast filmmaker perfectly cast her as the matron of a perfect white conservative family who is not above killing those who cross her sense of decorum - you don’t want to know the penalty for wearing white shoes after Labor Day -. “The Perfect Family” can seem stodgy in comparison, but that quality makes it more accessible to a larger audience.
A devoutly Catholic wife and mother has been nominated for one of the church's top awards. She then goes about trying to prove she has the "perfect" family, refusing to accept them for who they are.Stream Now
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