Directed by Jonathan Darby. Starring Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnathon Schaech, Nina Foch, Hal Holbrook, Debi Mazar, David Thornton. (1998, PG-13, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 6, 1998
Another in the growing genre of dysfunctional-family-member films, this new entry gives us Lange as Bad Mom Martha Baring, Paltrow as her new daughter-in-law Helen, and That Thing You Do's Schaech as Jackson Baring, the man in the muddle. Actually, they're all in a bit of a muddle, as Darby splashes bad vibes and evil deeds across his palette like so much turpentine, smearing what might have been an otherwise quick-witted thriller. Alas, the only wit even remotely quick comes from Nina Foch, as Jackson's aged mother-in-law, whose role as keeper of the closeted skeletons is kept to the bare minimum. The film opens with Jackson returning to his ancestral Kentucky manse -- the cheerily-named Kilronan -- with girlfriend Helen in tow for the traditional meeting of the mom. All goes well at first, and Martha is the soul of Southern gentility, forever dangling a scotch in one hand and a Virginia Slims in the other. When the couple return to New York only to find some months later that Helen has become pregnant thanks to a faulty diaphragm, it's back to Kilronan to fix up the old homestead (it's a former horse farm, and there's talk of selling it), get married, and have the baby (presumably under the watchful eye of Holbrook's grizzled doctor). Back on Martha's home turf, it soon becomes apparent to Helen that her mother-in-law has not taken much of a shine to her. Martha has developed an annoying habit of putting her daughter-in-law in dangerous situations, “forbidding” her to do certain things, and outright lying. Jackson, apparently, is oblivious, and by the time he exits the picture to watch one of his trotters race in a neighboring village, the stage is set for nasty shenanigans of all types. From start to finish, there is absolutely nothing in this film that comes as a surprise -- Darby and co-screenwriter Michael Cristofer (Breaking Up) telegraph every available bit of plot seemingly hours before it's necessary, resulting in a tawdry, boring mish-mash of genre clichés and arched eyebrows. Though Lange may have seemed the perfect choice in the pitch meeting, onscreen she's far too hammy. Her portrait of this sociopathic, narcissistic mommy is so broad it feels like a Hirschfield caricature done in Krylon; it's too much, from her overbearing, bordering-on-comical Southern accent to her sly glances askance. Paltrow, for her part, doesn't bring much to the table either, basing her entire character on a series of pouts and grimaces. And Schaech? Regardless of his ability as an actor, his character is so dense, so blind to what's going on around him, that it's all you can do not to run up to the screen and slap him silly. His performance is an exercise in the fine art of ignoring the obvious. I won't even go into the film's leaden ending here; suffice to say it's not nearly as interesting as what has come before, which wasn't very interesting to begin with.