12 October 2008 | MacAindrais
Dysfunctional Fireflies and the Case of the Exploding Fish
Fireflies in the Garden (2008) **1/2
The problem with movies about dysfunctional families is the same one that spy movies have: they're a dime a dozen, and rarely offer anything new. Wes Anderson has made dysfunction his specialty. Noah Baumbach's Squid and the Whale was also a very good film about dysfunctional families, as is Jonathan Demme's new film Rachael Getting Married. Dennis Lee's feature length debut, Fireflies in the Garden is a technically well made film. It looks good, it sounds good. Lee is a sound director. But good direction can't always save a flat script. That's the problem with the movie. It offers nothing new into an already crowded genre.
I suspect that the film's script must have looked quite good. After all, it netted a slew of stars - Ryan Reynolds, Emily Watson, Willem Defoe, Hayden Panettiere, Iaon Gruffud, and Julia Roberts. Reynolds stars as as Michael Waechter, the son of a self absorbed intellectual jerk, Charles (Dafoe). His mother is Lisa (Roberts). The film goes back and forth in time, between Michael's childhood and present day. While on the way to Rhyne, the daughter's graduation party, Charles and Lisa get into a car accident while trying to avoid Christopher, Lisa's nephew. Lisa is killed.
This sets up situations and complications to bring everyone together so they can argue and bicker, and of course, eventually reconcile. As the family gathers at the old family home, where Jane (Watson in the present, Panattiere in the past) now lives, old feelings are drudged over, and while going through their mother's things, Michael discovers a secret about his mother.
Robert's and Watson play caring mothers. Lisa is passive, maybe too passive. Why she allows Charles to get away with some of the cruel things he does to the young Michael are confounding.
Meanwhile, the film also glosses over the relationship between Jane and Michael, who are roughly the same age. That relationship is almost incestuous, although Lee never dares to fully delve into it. Everyone does solid work with their roles. Again a part of the technical solidity of the film. It's just that the story is too familiar, too flat. In the end, Dafoe has some moments of depth, and Reynolds gives a strong and layered performance. Otherwise, the script doesn't take enough time to flesh out its characters.
Sure Michael has every reason to hate his father. He's a jerk, unabashedly so. The story needs to be maybe flushed out more, or maybe way less. There are stories enough for about three movies here. The plot line regarding young Christopher, who feels tremendous guilt over Lisa's death is enough for a film of this length. But there are so many other stories going on that it gets only limited time.
There are some other small nitpicks that can be made. First, none of the kids look like their adult counterparts. That would be fine in a better movie, but here it's something you pick out. Second, although the film is set somewhere outside Chicago, it feels like somewhere in the south. Probably because it was shot in and around Texas.
Based on a script that floated around Hollywood for sometime before getting financed, Fireflies in the Garden has floated around looking for a release since its debut back at the Berlin Film Festival. It's reported that the film will get a release come November. I suspect it will be limited, and suspect that it won't stick around theaters for long. Robert's might attract a few patrons to the multiplexes, but I wouldn't count on this one to make a big splash with anyone. I'm sure Lee has better in him.