Picture this: a rich, dysfunctional family has gathered for a celebration--but it's going horribly, horribly wrong. Flashback to the hours leading up to said event, where a wry narrator introduces us to the members of the family: the solid and dependable brother, the other, unreliable loser brother, the spoiled brat sister, etc. And then we're brought back up to the opening event, where the family comes together even as they're absolutely falling apart.
You got it? Good. Were you imagining the pilot episode of Arrested Development? Because I can't imagine that's an accident; Barry W. Blaustein's new comedy Peep World feels like it was made to fill the vacuum created by the long-promised-but-surely-never-arriving Arrested Development movie. They even go so far as to cast Judy Greer, an AD semi-regular, in one of the major roles.
Aside from the surely intentional echoes of that show (and, in several instances, of The Royal Tenenbaums), Peep World is a passable enough picture, with moments of genuine humor and poignancy that are frequently undercut by the unsteadiness of the enterprise. The big event that opens and closes it is the annual birthday celebration of Henry Meyerwitz (Ron Rifkin), a wealthy real estate developer and patriarch of a thoroughly screwed-up clan. Oldest son Jack (Michael C. Hall) is about to become a father, and terrified by the failure of his architecture company. Cheri (Sarah Silverman) is a failed actress/dancer/painter/writer/etc. Joel (Rainn Wilson), the black sheep, is deep in debt to loan sharks and can't manage to pass the bar. Only Nathan (Ben Schwartz), the insufferable baby of the family, has attained any degree of success--by writing a novel that amounts to a thinly-veiled exposé of their dysfunction.
Director Blaustein (Beyond the Mat, The Ringer) assembles a first-rate cast that includes not only the aforementioned folks, but sunny Taraji P. Henson, the great Leslie Ann Warren, Kate Mara, Alicia Witt, and Lewis Black as the narrator. But the picture is so slight and short (by my watch, less than 80 minutes minus credits) that few of them get much of anything to do; we're struck, in the big birthday dinner sequence, of all the talent assembled at that table, and how few of them are given much of anything to do.
Silverman probably comes off best, mostly through her sheer force of personality. Her character is a bit of an old hat, but she puts it across; we totally buy that she is the spoiled daddy's girl who never learned how to motivate or accomplish anything on her own. "I will be civil tonight at daddy's birthday," she repeats to herself, a mantra that lasts maybe thee-and-a-half minutes. Rifkin projects his steely, cold power and meanness from the moment he steps into the frame--it's an all-show, no-tell performance, and an effective one. Mara (from 127 Hours) is marvelous, even if her character is a barely-written afterthought; there's a lovely, casual sweetness to the relationship between Wilson and Henson, who gets most of the script's best lines ("All this over a book?" she asks. "I've got cousins who shot each other and got over it").
But Peter Himmelstein's screenplay just can't get itself together--the tonal swings are a mile wide, and Blaustein's attempts to spackle over them with the cutesy, right-on-the-nose score only highlight the desperation ("Look how mirthful all this is," the cues seem to scream). I wish I didn't have to report that, in 2011, we've got a comedy--from an independent distributor, no less--that includes a sustained, medically-induced erection as a major running gag/plot point. But there it is. And it's not just that it's tired and overdone; even setting those things aside, it's not funny. All it does is stop the movie cold, and cover it with flop sweat. Even the savviest director would have trouble bouncing back from those scenes; when we get, a little bit later, a tough, honest scene between Hall and wife Greer, a scene of marital desperation played (and played seriously, and played well) through a locked door, how are we supposed to reconcile that with the stupid dick joke subplot? How are they even part of the same reality?
And that's the trouble with Peep World: they're not. The Arrested Development rip-off isn't an incidental factor; the entire script feels cobbled together from leftovers and spare parts, random scenes from other, better pictures and TV shows. The conflicts and resolutions play out pretty much exactly as expected, and when they run out, the movie just shuts down with a tossed-off, half-cocked ending. It's a shame. Peep World has got a hell of a cast, and a few funny moments. But it mostly plays as a series of missed opportunities.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.