So it’s Thanksgiving. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to the majority of us, it means it’s most likely the first time all year you’ve gotten together with a large number of family members that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And more often than not the “few and far between” nature of the visit is for good reason. Whether it’s Uncle Jim’s new girlfriend (“I really think she‘s the one – I mean it this time!”), Aunt Linda’s new boobs (yeah she’s gonna show ‘em to SOMEbody) or your brother’s old case of beer that was a new case of beer 6 hours ago, some shit’s gonna go down. Somebody’s got gossip, somebody’s got drama, somebody’s gonna yell at someone else, that person’s gonna cry and all the while your sweet Mother is bound and determined that we’re all going to sit down and enjoy at least one meal together as a family, so help me God. So yeah – it’s Thanksgiving. So while you’re digesting the 6 pounds of food you ate just to feel like you were doing your part to make your Mom happy, take a break from the relatives and spend some time with a few families who make your shit look like the Cleavers and make your friends who are spending the day drinking whiskey with their friends look like the smartest motherfuckers alive. So, without further ado…
#1 – The Tenenbaums (The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001 – Buy it from CHUD)
Oh the sins of the father – fucking it up for everybody. If ever there was a perfect visual aide for the “importance of being a Dad” PSAs, this movie is it. Just to take a quick inventory of the family: You have Chaz, whose trust issues from his constantly being screwed over by his father in youth manifest themselves in a perpetual state of panic after his one avenue outside of the crazy has passed away. And of course his kids are paying the price. You have Richie, the “favorite,” who’s torn between a loyalty to his father, his love for his family (who hate his father) and an intense love for Margot, his adopted sister. His adopted sister, who, at every turn, was made an outcast by her “father,” who involves herself with a Royal-surrogate in Raleigh just so she can make HIM feel outcast and who refuses to let herself feel what she really feels for Ritchie because he’s the only thing that makes her feel like part of the family. And that’s not even mentioning Eli Cash, hooooboy…
Most Dysfunctional Moment: When Royal, having learned of Etheline’s plan to marry Henry, decides to fake stomach cancer in an effort to weasel his way back into their lives, there’s a scene in which they debate whether or not he should be allowed to stay in the house. Every single complex, issue, hurt feeling and ounce of anger and sadness comes bubbling out. And then they learn that he was faking it.
#2 – Martha & George (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – 1966 – Buy it from CHUD)
No matter how many times your relatives have fought, or how bad you thought those fights were, none of them compare to the surname-less George and Martha (played with sizzling goddamn by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), a married couple who have seemingly spent the majority of their entire marriage doing their best to completely and utterly destroy one another. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally, which is far, far more devastating to watch. Especially for young newlyweds Nick and Honey, who Martha has invited over for dinner. It’s this dinner – and the aftermath – where the film takes place and we spend the entire running time listening to Martha rip and claw at George from every angle. She violently attacks his apparent lack of drive and his failures as a professional. She flirts openly and lewdly with Nick, comparing the young man’s physical fitness to George’s paunchy frame, making assumptions about Nick’s sexual prowess in an effort to shine a light on George’s sexual inadequacies. George retorts with nasty things to say about Martha’s mothering of their son and her rampant…lustiness. But while Martha’s barbs are broadly vitriolic and aimed at George with no mind to the collateral damage, his are far more precise and deliberately delivered, and eventually end up aimed squarely at Nick, doing his best to let his distaste for his own marriage poison theirs. And it just escalates (yes, ESCALATES) from there.
Most Dysfunctional Moment: No spoilers, but when the truth is revealed about George and Martha’s son, the events on display become that much MORE devastating.
#3 – The Torrances (The Shining – 1980 – Buy it from CHUD)
The Torrances weren’t the most functional family to begin with. Jack, a meagerly successful (?) writer, frustrated in his marriage, in alcoholism recovery after a binge led him to harm his son. Wendy, uncomfortable in her marriage, torn between her own growing distrust of her husband and her inherent need to defend him to outsiders. And there’s little Danny Torrance, who has an imaginary man named Tony who lives in his mouth. Sooo…yeah. And then they go spend the winter at The Outlook Hotel, which was built on an Indian Burial ground and is haunted. While there, we learn that Danny actually has ESP, Tony is all the bad shit in the hotel speaking through him, Jack goes bugfuck and murders the shit out of Scatman Crothers, Wendy screams a LOT and any chance any of the three of them had at happiness for the rest of their lives died with Jack in the hedge maze (spoiler alert). Does that overly simplify it? You betcha, but it’s either that or get ten tons of meticulous.
Most Dysfunctional Moment: Ya know, it’s real easy to namedrop the whole “Here’s Johnny”-symbolized final chase scene but at that point the family dynamic is gone. Johnny’s here because Jack isn’t any longer. Instead, what may be the most dysfunctional (or at least heartbreaking) moment is after Danny explores Room 237 and emerges with visible injuries that Wendy immediately attributes to Jack, who has indeed become more withdrawn and temperamental. It’s the distrust and resentment in her that she’d been trying hard to get a handle on coming out. The saddest part about that is that of course Jack didn’t do it, but realizing just what his wife really thinks of him leads him to give up his sobriety. When he accepts Grady’s glass of bourbon, that’s the moment when the Torrances finally stopped existing as a family. And then Jack meets the “crazy old lady” in Room 237 and the audience collectively shudders.
#4 – The Murphys (Eddie Murphy’s Delirious – 1983 – Buy it from CHUD)
“Waaaaaitaminute” you might say. And yeah, okay, technically this is cheating. But fuck it – we’re talking about dysfunctional families in film, Delirious is a concert film, and the Murphys (as depicted in the “Family Cookout” bit
on this alb…in this movie) is about as close to completely relatable as any of us are going to get to any of these families. From Uncle Gus’ techniques for grill lighting (“NOW THASSA FIRE!”) to Aunt Bunny’s mustachioed clumsiness (“…MY SHOE…”) to Eddie’s Father’s drunken assault on the entire family (“I know you’re 7, but you’ll be a 7-year-old, no-house, walkin’-the-dog motherfucker”). There’s every chance that you’ve experienced SOMEthing today that makes this feel like home.
Most Dysfunctional Moment: “But I’ma tell you somethin’ motherfucker. You can take your motherfuckin’ hairy fatass wife mustache bitch out the fuck. You can go upstairs and get the motherfuckin’ dog and scoop up the shit, and take Eddie, and get these motherfuckin’ long Angela Davis afro-wearin’ motherfuckin’ kids of yours and put them in the motherfuckin’ goonie-goo-goo-mobile and get the fuck out. And if my wife don’t like it she can get the fuck out too.”
#5 – The Corleones (The Godather Saga – 1972, 74 & 90 – Buy it from CHUD)
Jesus Pete – where do I even begin? They’re a family that’s so closely-guarded yet miles apart. A family that can, in one wedding picture, seem like the essence of closeness but then rip each other to pieces. They’re a family that stays close not because being close gives them comfort, but because drifting apart is dangerous. The Corleones don’t stick together as a means of support or sentiment or familial bonds that bring people through trying times, they do it because anything else means death. And they grieve when death comes, but its very quickly replaced by paranoia and an eye on what’s coming next. They can’t focus on being a family because they have to focus on being The Family. But they do love each other. Genuinely. For better or worse. And it’s always worse.
Most Dysfunctional Moment: Everybody’s going to have their own answer to this, but for me, the first time I ever watched The Godfather, the thing that stuck with me for weeks afterward was the last shot. An hysterical and grief-stricken Connie storms into Michael’s office and accuses him of having her husband killed. Michael tries to console her but she has no use for it and storms out, leaving Kay to question Michael further (“Don’t ask my about my business, Kay.”). He finally reluctantly denies it and she accepts it. Relieved she steps out to make them a drink, and as the the camera stands behind her, looking across the room at Michael, in his office, standing at his desk, putting a final visual stamp on their emotional distance/estrangement, Clemenza and the two other capos re-enter the frame. They kiss his ring, proclaim him Don Corleone and very politely, but very pointedly, close the door on Kay. And the film ends, leaving her there on the outside, with nothing but Michael’s broken promise. “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”
So now it’s your turn. What are your favorite cinematic dysfunctional families? What are your other favorite dysfunctional moments from the ones listed here? Let us know in the comments and on the boards.
[And on a serious note, all jokes aside, I do have to say that I’m tremendously lucky to not only have family to spend time with today, but a family that I genuinely enjoy spending time with. I know that not everyone has that, so whatever you spend your Holiday doing, I hope it’s the bitchinest and not the bitchiest. – JGB]