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Putting the lie to Tolstoy's otherwise truthy maxim "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," this locally shot weeper is unhappy in myriad ways, few of which manage to coalesce around its heart-stung core. Director Lee, working (sort of) from the title's Robert Frost poem, makes a statement of his own: Having Willem Dafoe for a movie dad is a bad life plan. (See also: Spider-Man.) That's probably not the revelation Lee was going for but Dafoe's character, Charles Taylor, the domineering patriarch of the dysfunctional Taylor clan, approaches The Great Santini levels of fatherly unloveliness.
Alternating between the family's past and a present gathering occasioned by the accidental death of one of its key members, Fireflies in the Garden draws some questionable parallels between the once-upon-a-time deeds of the father and the current doings of the son, Michael (Reynolds, faring much better here than in the recent, misguided Green Lantern debacle). Both are writers, but where Charles is approaching tenure at a Chicago university and has, apparently, given up on his dream of being a great writer, Michael is a bestselling pop novelist whose titular memoir threatens to lay bare the family's sordid background. Neither one can stand the other, naturally.
Relentlessly bullied by his father when he was an adolescent (and played as such by the myopically expressive Cayden Boyd), Michael's matriarchal champion was his long-suffering mother, Lisa (Roberts), who had a few secrets of her own. Also in this boy's corner was his mother's sister Jane (played as a youth by Panettiere and later by Watson). In one of the film's odd tonal ambiguities, Michael and Jane's youthful relationship appears to hint at a possible incestuous connection. It's never acted upon (that we know of), but Jane is introduced as a brazen teen hell-raiser, prone to blowing up fish and wandering around the house in her skivvies.
There are some moments of blessed levity to the otherwise mordant melodramatics: A daffy sequence of adult Michael and his cousins (Ellison, Proulx) literally swatting fireflies in the dusk with badminton racquets is deftly daffy and very true-to-life, as is the familial penchant for mixing M-80s and fish. That's not enough to sustain interest in the Taylors and their toxic emotional foibles, however.
Interestingly, the Internet Movie Database lists a festival running time 22 minutes longer than what we have here. Couple that with the fact that Fireflies in the Garden was shot back in March of 2007 and the film's erratic tone might just be chalked up to woeful editing and release problems.
Fireflies in the Garden, Dennis Lee, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, Chase Ellison, Brooklyn Proulx