Imagine a dartboard, where the board represents execution and the darts represent ideas. Some of the squares on the checkerboard-style dartboard are good executions and several of the darts are good ideas, and the rest are mediocre or tired if not quite clichés. Familiar Strangers was made with this game of darts; there are one or two good scenes where the right dart hits the right part of the dartboard, and the whole movie is friendly and well-meaning, but there are so many dramedies about dysfunctional families, and the screenplay by John Bell doesn't bring enough fresh ideas to the table to make it worth the effort.
Each member of the family fills in part of the story, from strongest to weakest. First we have Frank (Tom Bower), who ran the family business for years and fully expected his son Brian (Shawn Hatosy) to take over for him when it came time to retire. However, Brian chooses to move to the city and write a book (Adventures in the Electromagnetic Spectrum) instead, and Frank subsequently lost his grip on how to be a good father to all of his children, retreating to the relative simplicity of looking after his dog Adler. Bower, a recognizable character actor from films like Die Hard 2 and The Negotiator, is the primary reason to watch the movie, turning in several lightly heartbreaking scenes as he deals with Adler's impending death.
When the movie starts, it is Thanksgiving and Brian is returning for the first time since his departure, his (apparently unpopular) book recently finished and available in stores. Brian is frustrated by his father's attempts to stonewall him following his decision to move away, and is reluctant to be visiting at all. Hatosy's performance is good but not great, primarily because his character doesn't really get anything to do. One by one, his family members quietly ask Brian to find some way to put Adler out of his misery, believing that Frank is inadvertently torturing the dog by keeping it alive, but even this feels like lots of setup for very little payoff. Then again, perhaps this is a wise decision: the movie strongly hints at a potential romance between Brian and Allison (Nikki Reed), the local checkout girl, a thread that would really push the film into tired territory. Thankfully, it backs off before much happens, returning its focus to the family.
DJ Qualls also puts forth a solid performance as Frank's other son, Kenny, who hasn't managed to do anything with his life despite aspirations to be a photojournalist. Kenny is emotionally detached from his family, perfectly happy to sit around and mock everyone while his ambition lays dormant. There's not much to the role, and it's a role that exists in pretty much every movie about family that has ever existed, but Qualls is very likable, and you believe the way he paints the character. Qualls also forms particularly believable family bonds with all of the characters around him, so while it's not a standout turn, he gets the job done while deftly avoiding doing anything that would aggressively remind the audience of how tired the character is within the structure of these kinds of films.
The last of the family's children is Erin (Cameron Richardson, visually qualified to be Emilie De Ravin's stunt double) and her daughter, Maddy (Georgia Mae Lively). The character of Erin is saddled by the same basic problem as Brian, except worse: not only does the script provide no real meat for the actress to chew on (there's some uninteresting business about Erin's ex-husband), but she also gets saddled with contrived, weak scenes, such as the early bit where she angrily tosses the turkey in the garbage after she decides she hates her family. Maddy is also a victim of Precocious Child Syndrome, although thankfully there are enough characters and subplots in Familiar Strangers that the character does most of her cutesy business silently in the background.
Finally, shuffled to the bottom of the family food chain is Dottie (Ann Dowd). Dottie is a sad character, seemingly desperate and wracked with fear that her children should have to experience any sort of suffering or sorrow for themselves. There is a good scene where the characters prod her for information about a family funeral, and her eyes convey such shameful sadness as she refuses to let them in, clearly bottling up all of her emotions. The problem is that this turns out to be every one of Dowd's scenes, each performed with equal skill but increasingly less effective as her character continually refuses to accept that her family really does want to know about both the good and the bad happening around them.
It may be confusing to read the above paragraphs and try to piece together a plot for Familiar Strangers, but that's the way it is. This is a movie of subplots, all tied and tangled together in the hopes that it will add up to a satisfying arc for the family as a whole. It'd be unfair to claim this technique couldn't work; real life is obviously similar in that everyone has their own thing going, but the movie's conclusions feel rather unconclusive, and there's no real driving force here to prod the audience into caring. It's probably not a stretch to think that the film's creators are hoping the viewer will fill in the blanks for themselves, tossing in the emotional memory of their own ups and downs to grease the wheels. Unfortunately for them, not only did I have a good holiday season, I've also seen too many of these movies to be fooled.
Phase 4's DVD comes with a nice-looking DVD cover that oxymoronically includes a comedy animal yet no Photoshop, but dutifully trots out "There's no place like home" as the tagline to make up for it. The back cover is pretty generic and the disc art isn't anything special either, and there is no insert inside the Infiniti DVD case.
The Video and Audio
Familiar Stranger is set at Thanksgiving, not Christmas, but it looks like it's snowing in every frame thanks to an absolute sheen of digital-looking grain completely covering this disc's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. If you watch the film from a bit of a distance, you might not see it, and perhaps some small amount of the grain is inherent to the original negative, but if you get even a little bit close to the screen, it's hard to look at it and not think that the somewhere in the journey from said negative to this DVD, someone flipped some incorrect switches or something. In addition to the grain, it also looks soft, and the colors, while they appear accurate, don't exactly have any pop or pizazz.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is nothing particularly special. There's some half-hearted attempts at surround with the occasional crowd scene, but most of this movie takes place in a quiet country house where there's just not enough going on to really make this track pop. Dialogue is perfectly audible and the music sounds fine, but it's a completely perfunctory track. Dolby Digital 2.0 is also included (not noted on the box), along with Spanish subtitles.
There are two extras on this DVD: a featurette cleverly titled "The Making of Familiar Strangers" (12:27) and a reel of interviews (16:18) with cast and crew. If you're looking for a general making-of featurette, these names will be misleading: "Interviews" is the option to click, which is a nice enough little chat lacking in participation from several of the cast members but still shining a congenial light on the producers and other crew that created the film. The other reel is actually completely unedited B-roll footage, which is mildly interesting for a minute or two but becomes incredibly dull after about two minutes.
The movie's original theatrical trailer is also included to round out the package, along with a TV spot. Additional trailers for Good Dick, Paraiso Travel, and Valentino: The Last Emperor play before the menu.
There's nothing special going on in Familiar Strangers; in that respect, the way it lives up to its title becomes ironic. Skip it.
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