This little movie from first-time writer/director Michael Clancy would like to be a black comedy, but it lacks the courage of those convictions and never quite gets beyond a kind of dark gray.
Clancy’s desire to make a viewer-friendly film — meaning one that could be as weird and nasty as it liked, as long as it wrapped up with a feel-good ending — precluded any chance of the movie being otherwise. And while this is not a bad film, neither is it a brave one.
To begin with, the concept is hardly original. A supremely dysfunctional family gathers when its patriarch (Rip Torn) hands in his dinner pail, and quirky hilarity ensues. You’ve seen it before lots of times. (Just last year, Zach Braff’s Garden State offered a brilliant expansion of the concept.) Occasionally, the funeral is bumped in favor of a family reunion or a holiday, but the basic approach is the same.
The variable here is just how funny things really are. In the case of Eulogy, the sought-after hilarity is more often merely amusing, but at least it’s that. And any movie with Ray Romano in it that doesn’t make one wish one has a gun to bring down the really big game is doing something right. In fact, Romano is quite good in Eulogy and has my hands-down favorite line: “Don’t throw a lemon at me in front of a lesbian!”
For that matter, the entire cast is good (Zooey Deschanel and Hank Azaria are outstanding), and that goes a long way toward making up for the overly familiar concept. Clancy even provides his characters with a degree of personality rather than utterly relying on types, but this isn’t always a good thing, since he can’t quite keep things straight.
One moment, widow Charlotte Collins (Piper Laurie) is telling her late husband’s boss (Rance Howard) that she feels she can finally live her own life after the old boy’s demise. The next moment she attempts a grimly determined would-be suicide.
Something similar happens when we learn the reason that older sister Alice (Debra Winger) is so hell-bent on mocking lesbian sister Lucy (Kelly Preston) and her life-partner, Judy (Famke Janssen). The revelation makes sense — much more sense than one finds in most films of this type — but when the movie gets around to her apology to Lucy, the reason gets overlooked entirely!
There are also a couple of ill-advised attempts at over-the-top physical comedy that just don’t work and don’t belong in this film. In fact, it’s when Clancy goes for the biggest laughs that he gets the smallest titters — mostly because he won’t go all the way.
For instance, the gag with the exploding coffin might have registered if Clancy had had the nerve to take it to its obvious gross-out conclusion, but that’s not happening in this movie. The film is at its best in small moments of outrageousness, and in those moments, it’s pretty darn funny.
And when it doesn’t try too hard, Eulogy is nicely human, most notably in Hank Azaria’s portrayal of the more-or-less perpetually stoned former child actor (well, he was in a Spiffy Peanut Butter commercial) gone to middle-aged seed and supporting roles in porn movies. His relationship with daughter Kate (Deschanel) — the only family member who seems even slightly grounded in reality — has the ring of truth no matter how wild the events of the film get.
If you can focus on this and the film’s other small pleasures, then you might find Eulogy a pleasant diversion for its wisely brief 90 minutes. Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke