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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 11:22 pm

Families for adults

Why do so many family movies have to be family movies?

Why do so many family movies have to be family movies? Why does the presence of children in Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and Yours, Mine & Ours mean the films must be dumbed down for children? The best family movies are actually made for adult-minded audiences. The Upside of Anger (2005), the best recent film to focus on a family, unfortunately disappeared without a trace. Joan Allen’s anger stems from her strained relationships with her four grown daughters, a problem that is exacerbated by her husband’s running off with another woman. The last thing she needs is to be romanced by a drunken retired baseball player, but that doesn’t stop Kevin Costner from moving in on the family. The acting of the entire cast — particularly Allen, who probably won’t get a well-deserved Oscar nomination — is exemplary. Former standup comedian Mike Binder has created a funny and perceptive film about family turmoil. Family comedies are rarely regarded by the Academy as a subject worthy of Oscar consideration, but American Beauty (1999) is dark enough to be an exception. Sam Mendes’ satirical dissection of a dysfunctional middle-class family is such an acerbic gem, it’s hard to believe the Academy chose it. American Beauty presents a corrosive marriage in its final stages. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening nail their characters with such precision that it’s easy to forget that they’re acting. Flirting with Disaster (1996) tackles the subject of adoption with amazing wit and intelligence. Ben Stiller journeys to find his birth parents with his wife, child, and a woman from the adoption agency that placed him in tow. Armed with a list of possible parents, the group stumbles into one disastrous confrontation after another. This is a rare comedy that remains afloat until the very end. America doesn’t have a monopoly on crazy families. Muriel’s Wedding (1994), from Australia, is a much darker comedy than its title suggests. Muriel (Toni Collette), a pitiful, overweight outcast, obsesses over getting married, and logic and reason will not stand in her way. Her family life in the town of Porpoise Spit is positively deranged. There isn’t a heartwarming moment in sight. The Snapper (1993), from Ireland, is a quirky comedy about unwanted pregnancy. Colm Meaney gives a wonderfully understated performance as the father of a 20-year-old woman who refuses to reveal the name of the father. Director Stephen Frears avoids formula and predictability in bringing to life a family confronting a town scandal. “Family” isn’t a dirty word in film — if you look for the right ones. New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Jan. 10): The Constant Gardener, Red Eye, and Transporter 2.
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