Stephen Arnell

Family fall outs on film

Family fall outs on film
Rachel McAdams and Diane Keaton in The Family Stone (Shutterstock)
Text settings

The Harper Lee quote ‘You can choose your friends, but not your family’ never appears more apt than during the Christmas season. Movies about family dysfunction often follow a familiar pattern, with grievances aired, secrets revealed, lessons learned and (eventually) fences mended:

The Family Stone (2005) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

The Family Stone has snuck up on us as a contemporary semi-Christmas classic, aided by a fine cast and acerbic one-liners.

It’s culture clash time again, as conservative New York career woman Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) spends Christmas in rural Connecticut with the bohemian family of boyfriend Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney).

Nothing we haven’t seen before, but Thomas Bezucha (Let Him Go) keeps the show on the road, with the picture earning $93m on a $18 budget, a nice Christmas present for producers Fox 2000 Pictures.

Lemon (2017) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Steel yourself for an exercise in ‘cringe comedy’ in Janicza Bravo’s Lemon.

Fleabag’s Brett Gelman (who co-wrote with then wife Bravo) plays actor Isaac Lachmann, whose lack of empathy, arrogance and selfishness assume epic proportions after his blind girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) understandably leaves him.

Isaac spends Passover with his family, where petty point-scoring features heavily, along with a bizarre family sing song. A top notch cast also includes Michael Cera, Nia Long, David Paymer, Rhea Perlman, Megan Mullally and Jeff Garlin.

Lemon is something of an acquired taste, as the movie doubles down on the comedy of social embarrassment that Ricky Gervais pioneered in The Office, although David Brent is Cary Grant in comparison to the repellent Isaac.

Knives Out (2019) Amazon Buy

Rian Johnson’s enjoyable whodunnit invites us into the Massachusetts mansion of the Thrombey family, a parasitical brood living off patriarch Harlan, a successful mystery writer.

Harlan is found dead, believed a suicide, but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play.

With the exception of Harlan’s ancient mother, the in-fighting Thrombeys are unremittingly awful, all with reasons to seek his death. Happily, none of the clan manage to get their mitts on the author’s multi-million-dollar fortune.

Brightburn (2019) Amazon Rent/Buy

Nature vs nurture in Brightburn, which riffs on Superman’s origin story.

A childless Kansas couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) unofficially adopt a humanoid child they find in crashed spaceship, naming the boy Brandon.

Despite their best efforts at parenting, the teenage Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) begins to explore his blossoming powers, developing a taste for murder – and eventually world domination.

Paddington (2014) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

This charming movie version of the late Michael Bond’s marmalade-sarnie chomping Peruvian ursus was a huge success on its release, prompting a popular sequel in 2017.

Taken under the wing of the affable Brown family when he arrives at Paddington station, the little fellow gets into a multitude of scrapes when villainous taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman) plans to stuff and mount the bear as part of her collection. Mr Brown's initial scepticism about Paddington causes him to come to blows with the rest of his family who, of course, want to keep him.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Always on any list about dysfunctional families, Tenenbaums features a great late career performance from Gene Hackman as grifting patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, faking cancer to slime his way back into the affections of his wife and adult children.

The cantankerous actor didn’t think so at the time though, as he famously gave director Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch) an extremely hard time on set.

Things have come to a pretty pass when you have to rely on Bill Murray (Raleigh St. Clair in the movie) to shield you from Hackman’s ire.

Anderson should have spoken to Barry Sonnenfeld, who butted heads with the actor on the set of Get Shorty (1995) saying: 'He was scary as hell to work with – he’s very intimidating and suffers no fools.'

Still, Hackman was exceptionally good in both pictures, which Anderson and Sonnenfeld happily acknowledged.

Death at a Funeral (2007 Amazon Rent/Buy/2010 Amazon Prime Rent/Buy)

I may be in the minority, but I prefer Neil LaBute’s 2010 US remake to the Frank Oz 2007 original, although they both follow writer Dean Craig’s script closely.

The funeral of a respected family patriarch is thrown into disarray by revelations of his clandestine other life.

Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) plays the secret boyfriend, trying to hustle his way into a piece of the inheritance with a folder full of compromising photographs.

To my eyes, the later movie has more energy, with the mainly African-American cast (including Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Kevin Hart) embracing the farcical aspects of the piece, and James Marsden is hilarious as a mourner inadvertently doped with a powerful hallucinogen.

Home for the Holidays (1995)

Jodie Foster’s second picture as a director (after 1991’s Little Man Tate), HFTF is an amiable dramedy, with the virtue of being a good deal spikier than the generic title suggests.

A family Thanksgiving degenerates into a Festivus-style (Seinfeld) score settling, with divorce, unemployment, and sexuality all on the menu. Stuffy Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) says to her less uptight sister Claudia (Holly Hunter): 'If I just met you on the street...if you gave me your phone number, I’d throw it away.'

Well, we’ve all been there.

Robert Downey Jnr tears up the scenery as gay sibling Tommy, a dry run for his turn as Terry Crabtree in Wonder Boys (2000).

Arnold Schwarzenegger tried his hand at directing a holiday-themed picture three years earlier with the TV movie Christmas in Connecticut, seemingly travelling back to 1971 to assemble the starring cast of Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Rowntree, and Tony Curtis.

The result was…not good. Arnie has yet to helm another film; on the basis of CIC, we should be profoundly grateful.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018) BBC iPlayer

Director Ben Wheatley (Free Fife) ventures into Mike Leigh territory with mixed results.

Perennial Wheatley sad sack Neil Maskell stars as Colin, who foolishly rents a palatial mansion to welcome in the New Year with his generally unpleasant extended family, including his uninvited black sheep brother David (Sam Riley).

Based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the picture was filmed under the witty title of Colin You Anus

We’re the Millers (2013) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Dumb fun with heart as small-time weed dealer David Clark (Jason ‘Ted Lasso’ Sudeikis) creates a fake family to smuggle two tons of marijuana from Mexico to the US.

Clark recruits stripper neighbour Rose O'Reilly (Jennifer Aniston), to pose as his wife, with misfit teens Emma Roberts and Will Poulter as his offspring Casey and Kenny.

As you can guess, bonding ensues on their adventures, as well as run-ins with a Mexican cartel, crooked cops and, in Kenny’s case, an extremely painful and embarrassing encounter with a tarantula.