Eileen Cleary leads a highly structured, faithful routine and the local Catholic Church is the cornerstone of her life. On a daily basis, she prepares and delivers meals to the homebound, attends mass and confesses even the tiniest slight like, “I used the Lord’s name in vain once yesterday.” Her world is one of moral certainty, black and white.
Portrayed by Kathleen Turner, Eileen is no “Mommie Dearest,” but a real woman who must reconcile blind obedience to the teachings of her church with the realities of modern family life.
Her husband, Frank (Michael McGrady), is a recovering alcoholic who, early in their marriage, took to womanizing during his drunken binges. Daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is a lesbian planning to have a baby with her partner. Son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) has left his wife and two sons to pursue a relationship with a local manicurist.
For years, Eileen has simply chosen to ignore these issues, until her nomination requires a home visit from the bishop and letters of recommendation from her family members.
When Shannon confronts her mother about her nuptials and pregnancy, Eileen finally acknowledges her knowing disapproval. It’s morally wrong, Eileen says because the Pope has said so. When Shannon demands to know what her mother thinks, Eileen responds, “I don’t have to think, I’m a Catholic!”
Ironically, the prize Eileen covets is a prayer of absolution delivered to the winner by the visiting bishop of Dublin, which we learn is not so much about her family’s redemption, but Eileen’s own, revealed in a shocking confession late in the film.
Richard Chamberlain delivers a refreshing performance as Monsignor Murphy, the parish priest who clearly admires Eileen’s devotion, but also senses the hidden turmoil she keeps bottled up.
Writers Paula Goldberg and Claire Riley provide a script that is predictable at times, for instance, the drunken arrival of Frank Jr. just minutes before the bishop’s visit. But, they know their characters, weaving smart, sarcastic commentary on religion throughout, and leading Eileen to an eventual epiphany.
Director Anne Renton avoids the urge to veer toward the flavor of silly comedy that has made television shows like Modern Family so popular, even though the sitcom family is not really so different from the Clearys.
For those of us who grew up in religious families, especially in the Bible Belt, the struggle Eileen faces at once seems familiar. When she finally reconciles her faith with family, they are all freed.
The Perfect Family
Opening May 11
AMC Aventura 24 and AMC Sunset Place/West Palm Beach – Mos’ Art Theater (Lake Park)
Check local listings for show times.