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Well, You See, Doctor, It's My Family. ..

Movies: Dysfunctional households are riding high on a wave of new works. Dramatic truths are told while the familiar is made funny.

September 29, 1997|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the great comic moments in David O. Russell's 1996 film "Flirting With Disaster" comes when Ben Stiller informs his adoptive mother that he's going off to meet his birth parents. His mother, a chain-smoking neurotic played by Mary Tyler Moore, takes it badly.

"[You're] saying we failed completely," she tearfully exclaims, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex.

"No," Stiller replies. "That's way too extreme."

"Maybe 40%," Moore says bitterly.

"Mom, you can't quantify it like that," says Stiller, trying to be reassuring. "What difference does it make if it's 40% or 60%?

Moore bursts into tears. "60%!"

However exaggerated, the scene always gets a big laugh because it hits so close to home. In films about dysfunctional families, a genre currently enjoying a healthy revival, it's often exaggerated behavior that best captures dramatic truth.

"Family is a universal topic, because it's stuff you've dealt with your whole life," says Bart Freundlich, the 27-year-old writer-director of the just-released "The Myth of Fingerprints." "There's so much complexity and so many layers there that you can always find a story, whether it's drama or comedy. And it's always fresh, because what you're really doing is writing about the things people don't say in their own lives."

Family has been one of the most enduring subjects in film, both for dramas like "East of Eden" and "The Godfather," as well as comedies like "You Can't It Take It With You" and "The Birdcage." Right now the theaters are full of movies that explore troubled family relations, with more to come. Consider the following:

* "Soul Food," a film from first-time writer-director George Tillman Jr., about a tightly knit African American family whose Sunday-night dinners become an emotional battleground.

* "The Ice Storm," a cold-eyed account by director Ang Lee of an uptight suburban Connecticut family coming to grips with the sexual revolution of the Nixon years.

* "A Thousand Acres," directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, offers the turbulent tale of a crusty patriarch and his extended family, who are torn asunder by long-buried sexual transgressions.

* "The Myth of Fingerprints," where first-time director Freundlich chronicles the tense drama that unfolds at an uneasy Thanksgiving family reunion at a country home in Maine.

* "The House of Yes," due out Oct. 10, an outrageous dark comedy from first-time director Mark Waters about a crazy family with secret desires and an unhealthy fascination with the Kennedy assassination drama.

Though the movies use Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings as the setting for family turmoil, they're decidedly not G-rated fare. In fact, most of the movies crackle with highly charged sexual antics, taking the form of adultery, wife swapping, teen lust, incest and child abuse. Fathers seduce daughters, brothers sleep with sisters, every fiancee or husband seems to be fair game.

After having sex with her next-door neighbor's spouse in "The Ice Storm," Sigourney Weaver gives him the cool brushoff: "I have a husband, I don't particularly feel the need for another."

Far more adult than today's typical studio fare, most of these films are low-budget, independently financed projects, whose firepower is provided by emotional tumult, not special-effects explosions.

"You can't really make a movie with an epic sweep on $1.5 million," says "House of Yes" director Waters, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in South Bend, Ind. "But the family gives you a whole world of emotion in a small space. Families are a built-in drama box. They offer you a closed environment, with all these layers of emotion that's just perfect for a filmmaker working on a low budget."

Not all the stories are based on personal experience. Adapted from a Jane Smiley novel, "A Thousand Acres" borrows its central premise--a Corn Belt patriarch giving his land to his three daughters--from Shakespeare's "King Lear." But in many instances, family memories provided the spark for much of the action and character development.

Tillman says his film, which revolves around Sunday meals prepared by Mother Joe and her three grown daughters, was inspired by his boyhood memories of Sunday family dinners in Milwaukee prepared by his grandmother and her six daughters. (A portion of the film's $6.5-million budget went to the food stylist who cooked the sumptuous meals seen in the picture as the cast worked on a nearby stage.)

"I used to hate those big dinners--I'd ask my dad why I had to hang around all these women," recalls the 28-year-old director. "But that's where the film comes from--my aunts cooking in the kitchen, my dad and my uncles in the next room, watching the Packer games, talking about my aunts.

"When I sent the script to my younger brother, he said, 'Hey, this is us!' My aunts have all been asking, 'Am I Vanessa? Am I Vivica Fox?' And I'm not telling them anything."

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