Independent features either reach untold highs or crash hard - when dedicated to risky subjects. How many stellar careers have been made by low-budget risks? Who knows? Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider Man) comes to mind, but my main point is, full-throttle indies give us a lot of joy. Mild indies tip-toeing down the quirky family comedy road usually come out tasting like unflavored grits. No risk, no reward, which is the case with California Dreaming.
California Dreaming ensnares three pretty big names from TV-careers past, (Lea Thompson, Dave Foley and Patricia Richardson) gives them probably modest checks for their trouble and strands them in a mellow comedic romp that takes no chances, generates zero laughs and does the usual bit about teaching a life lesson. Thompson stars as Ginger Gainor, a control-freak Realtor dying to take her family on an RV vacation to Doheny Beach, California. Ginger's husband Stu (Foley) saddles up, throws their teenage son and daughter into the RV, and attempts to follow Ginger's rigid schedule as they try to leave Omaha. Only problem is, the kids really want to go to Branson, Missouri. OK, what? Maybe there's something about Omaha that I wasn't aware of.
Maybe that thing is a strange gas that incites bland mediocrity, slow pacing, tired performances, cheesy improbabilities meant as comedy and a feel for family dynamics cribbed from a religious pamphlet delivered door-to-door. Foley's usual acerbic exasperation is toned down to zero; he's a spineless hangdog generating no sympathy, even when he attempts to be a nurturing parent. Worse, Thompson's adorable perkiness (OK, she's a guilty pleasure for me) is subsumed by mildly cartoonish shrewisms and a terrible vacation get-up that never changes. What happened Lea?
Uninteresting contrivances and at times insultingly unrealistic characters plod along with faux-manic lunacy (Richardson's character is particularly grating, while teenage daughter's boyfriend is just stupid) to seemingly no end, until Ginger reaches her 'aha' moment and we can all breathe a happy sigh that it's over. But wait! Lucky viewers who stick it out through the credits get additional bits delineating Ginger and Stu's marital dynamic - something akin to a locally produced television advertisement for a furniture outlet.