Better Living

2000, Movie, NR, 95 mins


Bad movies are a dime a dozen. Rarer — though no better — are movies so baffling you can only wonder why talents like Olympia Dukakis and Roy Scheider ever got involved. Adapted from George F. Walker's play and helmed by theater director Max Mayer, making his feature-film debut, this dysfunctional family comedy (at least, the press notes say it's a comedy) is a tangle of themes in search of an engaging plot and some believable characters. The setting is a shabby house in some unidentified, blue-collar neighborhood; Nora (Dukakis) raised her daughters Elizabeth (Deborah Hedwall), MaryAnn (Catherine Corpeny) and Gail (Wendy Hoopes) there after her husband, Tom (Scheider), abandoned them some 15 years earlier. Now Elizabeth is a lawyer, MaryAnn is married and a new mother, and restless college student Gail lives at home. Nora, apparently flaky at the best of times, is digging a hole under the backyard that she plans to turn into a spare room for all her daughters' babies. But only MaryAnn even has a baby, and she's just dumped the infant on her husband and come crying home to Nora, overwhelmed by the pressures of motherhood. And now along comes the long-lost Tom, who's picked up some survivalist notions in his travels and wants to protect his family from the coming revolt of the have-nots. So he starts supervising the transformation of the hole in the yard into a shelter, and sets the family — with the exception of the belligerent Elizabeth, who'll have none of it — to hoarding canned goods. The characters embody ideas: Nora seems loony but knows the truth of the human heart; Tom appears in control but is self-deluded; the girls are anger, indecision and resentment made flesh. It's all terribly schematic, thematically obvious and not in the least bit funny. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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