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With: Helen Lesnick, Erica Shaffer, Arlene Golonka, Michele Greene
Written by: Helen Lesnick
Directed by: Helen Lesnick
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 100
Date: 07/18/2001
IMDB

A Family Affair (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Handpicked Cynic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Thankfully, Helen Lesnick's A Family Affair is really nothing like My Big Fat Greek Wedding as the press materials say. We've already had enough of those "stuffy, traditional, intolerant, ethnic parents try to keep child from pursuing his/her dream" movies to last a lifetime. The mother (Arlene Golonka) in "A Family Affair" is an enthusiastic member of PFLAG and supports her Jewish lesbian daughter's wedding wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, A Family Affair isn't nearly as charming or as clever as Kissing Jessica Stein, to which it's also compared in the press materials. The problem is not apparent right away, as writer-director-actor Lesnick appears on-screen and speaks to the camera, explaining that she's a lesbian on her wedding day and what a hard road it was to get there. She also explains that this movie will feature homosexuals of all types and that if you wandered into the wrong theater, she'll give you a moment to leave. Funny stuff.

As Rachel Rosen, Lesnick is a cynical wit. Rachel has recently moved to California from New York City after a painful breakup with a former girlfriend, Reggie (Michele Greene). She loves nothing more than to poke holes in Californians' sunny attitudes with her sideways smile and big Illeana Douglas eyes. And since she speaks directly to us, we're in on the joke. But everything changes when she meets a perky blonde, Christine (Erica Shaffer), and falls in love. The relationship grows, and Christine begins to talk long-term commitment and marriage. After a Passover Seder at the Rosen house, Christine even decides to convert to Judaism. All of which Rachel responds to with dark humor. Still, she's too smitten to resist life with Christine and finally agrees to marry. Unfortunately, Reggie arrives in town and begins pushing all the wrong buttons on Rachel, learned from their 13 years together. Rachel struggles, trying to decide between marrying Christine and returning to her beloved New York and life with Reggie.

More unfortunately, when Rachel begins her crisis, the cynical banter stops. She no longer talks to us, no longer winks at us and no longer makes snide comments. She merely listens patiently as her friends and family give her advice. One of the movie's best jokes is ruined by this downward spiral. For the first hour, Rachel's father (Michael Moerman) doesn't say a word. In a houseful of chattering women, he can't ever get a word in, so at some point he apparently gave up trying. He sometimes gives a hand signal, but that's it. Then, when Rachel hits rock bottom, he breaks his silence -- not with anything clever or original -- but with a big speech, giving Rachel advice and illustrating it with a story from his youth.

In this manner, A Family Affair resembles not so much My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Kissing Jessica Stein as About a Boy. Though that film was almost universally acclaimed, I preferred the cynical, stripped-down Hugh Grant from the beginning of the film to the touchy-feely Grant at the end of the film. The same thing happens with Rachel. We get on board because of her crazy, singular personality, and we're expected to stay in our seats when she grows conventional and boring. It's understandable; the filmmakers don't want to be responsible for saying it's OK to go through life being cynical all the time. It's not healthy. At some point we have to give up and go mainstream. Ultimately, our success depends on how fast and how well we can adapt. But the recent film Roger Dodger suggested otherwise, handling this same character type with more subtlety. The snide, womanizing Roger (Campbell Scott) eventually does learn his big lesson, but he doesn't turn 180 degrees to do it. He's as much fun to spend time with in the last shot as he is in the first.

Despite A Family Affair's flaws, Lesnick makes a promising triple-threat debut. Though the picture is at times overwritten and overacted, Lesnick the actress never falls victim to it. She comes across as a fearless leader, confident and in charge of her own material. This, after all, is a movie she made as a vehicle for herself, as Woody Allen or Josh Kornbluth might have done. And Lesnick's undeniably funny. We like her very much -- even in the tough times -- and we root for her success.

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