What distinguishes "Eulogy," the feature debut of writer/director Michael Clancy, are his unflinchingly caustic yet affectionately written characters. There's Daniel (Hank Azaria), a former child star whose infamous mushy-mouthed delivery in a peanut butter commercial has led to an illustrious career in obscure foreign (read: porn) movies. There's Skip (Ray Romano), a skeevy lawyer and divorced dad whose lascivious twin adolescent boys' erotic birthday cake proved their mother's undoing. There's Alice (Debra Winger), the bossy older sister who has bullied her husband and children into terrified silence. And then there's Lucy (Kelly Preston), who has defiantly announced her pending nuptials to her life partner Judy (Famke Janssen). Amid the inevitable bickering, Charlotte (Piper Laurie), the matriarch of this brood who is harboring a secret revealed in her late husband's will, determines she can't take it anymore and repeatedly tries to take her life in a variety of ways.
What plot there is centers around Daniel's college-aged daughter Kate (Zooey Deschanel), who has been asked to prepare a eulogy for her grandfather's funeral. In preparing her comments, however, she discovers that her fond memories of Grandpa Collins (Rip Torn) are not shared by his own children, who recall instead a distant father who could barely keep their names straight.
It's in this regard that the fabric of the film begins to fray. The eulogy framework simply isn't sturdy enough on which to hang a full-length movie. As a result it loses focus in the middle among the absurd goings-on and wraps up with ridiculous twist ending that's hardly necessary--the movie is funny enough already without it.
However, "Eulogy" is notable for a couple of gutsy performances in fantastically nasty roles. One is Romano, whose segue from his long-running TV show, where he is one of the industry's most popular performers, to film has been less than auspicious with the disappointing launch of "Welcome to Mooseport." Rated R, "Eulogy" is the adult comedy that "Mooseport" promised to be. The genius of Romano's brand of humor is that he proves not all grown-ups are actually grown-up, even if they're married and have kids, and here that persona is tweaked and amped. Skip and his boys are wildly inappropriate--libidinous, lecherous, even, at the prospect of sleeping under the same roof as a couple of lesbians--and it's brilliant. As he notes in the press kit for the film, Romano here is "cranking it up a notch.... This is movie dysfunction as opposed to network dysfunction."
Also among uniformly superb performances--it's a testament to Clancy's material that a first-time director was able to assemble such an incredible cast--is Winger, who, with the exception of "Radio" and the indie "Big Bad Love," has been largely absent from films for nearly a decade. She's simply fabulous here as a tightly-wound power mom who springs loose in spectacular fashion.
Clancy has mercilessly dragged his characters into the ugly light of day and across the board, but particularly in the cases of Romano and Winger, has elicited deliciously degenerate performances by actors who are unafraid of appearing unappealing. Yet ultimately, as the formula requires, they're redeemable. The Collins clan may not be the most likable bunch, but one can't help but empathize with their compulsive desire to connect with one another. Starring Hank Azaria, Jesse Bradford, Zooey Deschanel, Glenne Headly, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Kelly Preston, Ray Romano, Rip Torn and Debra Winger. Directed and written by Michael Clancy. Produced by Steven Haft, Richard B. Lewis and Kirk D'Amico. A Lions Gate release. Comedy. Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use. Running time: 91 min