Once again Kathleen Turner is playing a woman who on the surface seems to be the ideal wife and mother. But unlike Serial Mom, her character in The Perfect Family is driven by a deep dedication to Catholicism.
On the whole, the film is an amiable drama with some bright comic relief moments. It has some issues with an uneven story and underused characters though.
Eileen Cleary is a devoted member of the local church, and to reward that, Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) has decided to nominate her for Catholic Woman of the Year. In addition to the fancy title, the winner will receive the prayer of absolution. All sins forgiven. The other nominee is her arch rival Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence), so that adds another incentive to win.
But the judges will be looking at the families to see if the principles of the religion are present in the home lives of the women. Her two children grown, Eileen has to confront how they’ve managed their lives. And given how pious she is, they haven’t made it easy. Her son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) has left his wife and children. Now he’s shacking up with the local hairdresser (Kristen Dalton).
And then there’s Shannon (Emily Deschanel). Eileen learns that Shannon’s “friend” Angela (Angelique Cabral) is actually her life partner. Moreover they plan to wed, and further still, Shannon is already a few months pregnant. Helping Eileen come to terms with this is Angela’s own mother Christina (Elizabeth Pena). She too was first taken aback by her daughter’s identity, but in time learned to not let it affect anything. In her campaign however, Eileen finds herself having to lie about Shannon’s orientation and invent a (male) fiancé to mention to church officials.
Caught in the middle is her husband, Frank Sr. (Michael McGrady). As much as he wants to be supportive of his wife, he also realizes the importance in accepting his children for who they are, imperfections and all. A recovering alcoholic himself, he knows a thing or two about that.
If you noticed that I described Shannon’s story in the most detail, that’s because it is given the most priority in the film. This was probably done for the viewer’s benefit, and it works out as such. By introducing something all-new to Eileen, we can see exactly what her process of digesting the information and then addressing it are. It also helps a lot that Shannon isn’t a bad person in the slightest, and so she can empathized with easily.
Frank Jr., not so much. Shannon likes the ladies, that’s not a bad thing. Frank Jr. ditches his family, that certainly is. Sure he gives the same excuses (“we’ve grown apart,” “rushed into it,” you know the rest), but in the end I had the same lack of respect for him that I had at the beginning. One that it seems Eileen shares, as this plotline didn’t see much of a resolution as Shannon’s did.
And Frank Sr.? He gets some great moments later on, but I feel he should have been better used earlier. The first time his alcoholism is mentioned – when Eileen makes an excuse to not get served drinks at a party she’s uncomfortable at – it’s too much of a gag that I had no idea until further into the movie that I was supposed to take it seriously. Another character that I felt should have had more presence is Father Joe (Scott Michael Campbell), the minister under whom Shannon and Angela exchange their vows. In his thirties and hip to the current cultural climate, he makes a good counterpoint to the stodginess that Murphy represents. Eileen seeks his guidance later on, but for one small scene.
However all actors do a fine job, with Turner and Deschanel emerging as standouts. It’s Turner’s best work in nearly twenty years. You can really tell that Eileen’s devotion to her religion stems from something deeper, something that makes the prayer of absolution her ultimate goal.
But what The Perfect Family lacks it makes up for in heart. Amazingly it doesn’t come off as too damaging to Catholicism, just tries to reconcile those traditions with what we live with. As Shannon tells her mother who says that she is living in sin according to the pope, “What do you think?” What Eileen answers that with perfectly captures how she had conducted herself to that point: faithful certainly, but clearly afraid of straying from the neat and easy path. In watching her learn to begin to change that, the viewer sees that even though her family doesn’t explicitly exhibit the religion’s code, it surely exemplifies its compassion.