Guilt can be a powerful force. In The Perfect Family, it's also a self-perpetuating one. Director Anne Renton's film puts on display a woman so obsessed with her place in the afterlife that for a guarantee of absolution, she's willing to engage in morally questionable activities that are bound to cause her even greater guilt.
If that sounds like a cutting critique of organized religion and situational morality, not quite: Renton's approach is, to its benefit, fair and never strident. But it's also gentle and cautious, often to a fault.
Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) is a devout Catholic who goes to confession daily, delivers food to the elderly, holds the plate of Communion wafers for the parish priest and generally is about as involved as she can be in her church short of chucking everything and joining the convent.
For her labors, she's been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year. The prize will get her recognition at a church dinner, maybe a pretty plaque for the mantel. Most important, it comes with a personal prayer of absolution from a high-ranking visiting Irish archbishop. Eileen wants this assurance of forgiveness most of all.
But the reason for which she thinks she needs absolution is also her biggest roadblock to achieving the honor: She takes what she perceives as the failings of her family as spiritual deficiencies in her own character. Yet she needs that same family — including a husband (Mike McGrady) who's a recovering alcoholic and adulterer, a son (Jason Ritter) who just left his wife and family for an older manicurist, and a daughter (Emily Deschanel) who is five months pregnant out of wedlock and lives with a woman who is more than just a roommate — to seem the perfect picture of church-approved bliss when the archbishop comes to visit.
As much as Eileen is concerned with confessing trivial sins on a daily basis, she's willing to lie about every aspect of her family's life to win the larger absolution. She's not calculated or conniving, though, and that's one of the strengths of Renton's film. While many of the supporting characters here lack depth or moral complexity — particularly Agnes (Sharon Lawrence), Eileen's smug competition for the award — Eileen is largely portrayed as a fundamentally good-hearted but hopelessly naive woman who becomes confused when her love for the church and her family come into conflict.
Credit Turner, returning to the big screen for the first time in three years, with communicating Eileen's internal turmoil effectively enough that we're able to feel sympathy for a character who's openly homophobic, willfully ignorant of what's best for her family and rigidly self-centered.
Most of the primary cast members are also quite good, overcoming dialogue that is sometimes overwrought with soap-opera melodrama or on-the-nose jokes. ("I'm a Catholic; I don't have to think," Eileen declares in one of the more clumsy attempts at a dig at dogma.)
The Perfect Family often feels as if it was conceived as a comedy before its writers and director decided that some of its issues were too serious to be taken quite so lightly. As a result, orphaned comic bits sit lonely amid a lot of hand-wringing drama, as in the sitcom-ready scene when Ritter's Frank Jr. arrives fall-down drunk for the family's dinner with the archbishop. He is hastily stashed in another room, forcing Eileen to make up excuses for the strange noises coming from upstairs throughout dinner.
It's difficult not to admire the film for its intentions, which are nothing but good-hearted. But the film's gentle, sentimental approach prevents it from ever really getting at the pain that's been swirling around this imperfect family for years.
Scenes that should have an emotional sting are blunt and toothless, and the film speeds towards its desired picture-postcard ending so quickly that it never effectively portrays the growth and resolution needed to get them there. If there remains a kind of absolution for Eileen in the film, it feels like it's attained by just as much of a shortcut as if the archbishop had waved his hand.