Dysfunctional families and indie films go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and Birds of America, directed by playwright Craig Lucas, has dysfunction in abundance. Morrie (Matthew Perry), who raised his younger siblings Jay (Ben Foster) and Ida (Ginnifer Goodwin) after their father's death, now lives in the family home with his wife, Betty (Lauren Graham). Morrie is a college prof desperately seeking tenure, and the person who is most in a position to make that happen for Morrie is his friend Paul (Gary Wilmes), who lives right next door with his wife, Laura (Hilary Swank), in their perfect house, with their perfectly maintained flower bed, with their perfectly adorable infant.
Morrie is one of those guys who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he represses his emotions so tightly that the stress of it all has manifested itself in a case of constipation so extreme he has a home office set-up in his bathroom so he can work while trying to ... work all that out. Betty, meanwhile, wants desperately to have a perfect life and a child like Laura, but Morrie won't consider parenthood until he makes tenure. Since their whole future happiness is dependent upon whether Paul recommends Morrie for tenure, both Morrie and Betty go overboard in trying not to offend Paul and Laura -- even to the extent of not complaining that Laura's dog does his business in Morrie and Betty's yard. Unlike Morrie, the dog does not have a constipation issue, so they are constantly cleaning up after it. Adding to the marital tension, Morrie gets a call that Jay has attempted suicide by lying in the middle of the road; ever the responsible older brother, he brings Jay home where he can keep an eye on him while he recuperates. When Ida finds out about Jay, she shows up too and we have the three dysfunctional sibs under one roof, while Betty struggles to keep up pretenses for the neighbors to secure that all-important tenure.
Perry gives a solid performance as Morrie -- it's interesting to see him in a role that has more angst than the slapstick comedy he was known for as Chandler Bing in Friends. Graham, also stepping outside the boundaries of her fast-talking television role in Gilmore Girls, plays well off Perry as the wife who just wants to move on with life and be happy. It's a nice role for Graham, the highlight of which is a great speech where Betty goes off on Jay when he asks her whether her new washer and drier make her "happy." Foster (who was great in 3:10 to Yuma last year) has a nice turn in the film. His character is the kind of role that Owen Wilson gets a lot -- the hapless, laid-back loser who just wants to chill and enjoy life -- but Foster tries to give his character a little more depth. Goodwin is also solid as the free-spirited, messed-up younger sister, and I expect we'll be seeing more of her on the indie-film circuit.
The film has some rough spots; Swank (who's production company was involved in the film as well) feels largely wasted as Laura. Her character lacks the depth of Graham's Betty and she seems to serve no purpose other than as the model of the life Betty longs to have. Also, we never learn enough about what brought the siblings to this point in their lives to really get why they're so messed up or to care enough about what happens to them. After setting us up with "here are three siblings, and here are their quirks and issues," the script meanders along for a while before tying things up in a forced "hey, we'd better wrap this up, it's getting too long" sort of way. Lucas is a decent enough director, but perhaps since writing is really his forte, he should turn his writing talents to crafting his own scripts to direct, or adapting more of his plays for the screen.
Overall, Birds of America is a nice enough film , but it's kept from its potential to be really good by being a little too trite and formulaic to ever strike that solid chord that would have made it an unforgettable Sundance film. It's not quite funny enough to appeal as a rom-com, nor quite darkly comedic enough to satisfy; what we're left with, then, is pretty much just another average "dysfunctional family" story with a some good moments here and there; as a result, it just ends up feeling more like a film fest snack than a meal.