"Fireflies" a tiresome family drama

Thu Feb 14, 2008 2:50am EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - Dysfunctional families in dramatic literature date back to "Oedipus Rex," so if you're going to take that route, you'd better have something new to say.

In his film "Fireflies in the Garden," Dennis Lee comes up empty. Kids, parents, siblings, an aunt and an estranged wife all bicker and yell, but the noise cancels itself out. The movie is one long argument, tiresome and repetitive, that produces more heat than light. The wonder is that the first-time writer-director rounded up a cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss and Julia Roberts.

It screened at the Berlin International Film Festival out of competition.

The script reportedly knocked around Hollywood for a long time before Senator Entertainment decided to finance it since no one saw a market for Lee's story. That's still going to be a problem. Anything starring Roberts stands a chance, but box office in urban adult venues should be modest. The film probably will play better as home entertainment.

A family gathering in a small university town, presumably in the Midwest, takes a tragic turn when a car accident injures family head and professor Charles Taylor (Dafoe) and kills his wife, Lisa (Roberts). Animosity between Charles and his novelist son Michael (Ryan Reynolds), who lives in New York, runs deep, so his mother's death only exacerbates their hostility.

Most of the family travails stem from the basic fact that Charles is a self-absorbed, domineering, abusive jerk. Michael has every reason to dislike him. Indeed, in his just-finished manuscript, he takes his revenge.

His mother's sister, Jane (Watson), disapproves of Michael's literary character assassination but is more absorbed in calming her son, who blames himself for his aunt's death. To add to the nonmerriment, Michael's estranged and formerly alcoholic wife, Kelly (Moss), shows up for the funeral.

Flashbacks to Michael's childhood (Cayden Boyd touchingly plays him as a boy) fill you in on the abuse he suffered and how no one, not even his mother, could stop Charles from tormenting his son. Lee's story purports to be semi-autobiographical, but these petty family quarrels don't play on the screen. Abuse can be terrible to suffer firsthand, but here it takes on a certain banality. The cause of Charles' fury at the world is never articulated, nor is it clear why his wife tolerated so much cruelty from her husband.   Continued...

<p>Director Dennis Lee, actors Ryan Reynolds, Hayden Panettiere and Willem Dafoe (LtoR) pose during a photocall to present their film 'Fireflies in the Garden' running in the competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, February 10, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch</p>