Think very carefully: How eager are you to sign up for a cross-country drive with the Wagner family? Dad Allen Wagner is a plodding-gaited, tongue-thrusting stroke survivor whose speech is only marginally more comprehensible than Benicio del Toro's in The Usual Suspects. Momma Judy Wagner is a chronic malcontent who can drive any waitress crazy with insufferably precise cooking orders (and inevitable dissatisfaction with the end result).
After decades of withheld affection and information, their marriage is coming apart at the seams in full view of their grown daughters, Maggie and Emily, who are along for the ride that Judy has demanded they all take from New York to Los Angeles. The l-o-o-o-n-g trip gives the Wagners ample time to psychoanalyze each other and debate fuzzy family memories as they slowly reach the Left Coast, the adopted home of the couple's third child, struggling screenwriter Andrew Wagner. Andrew lives on the same block as the American Idol studios and is thus largely inaccessible, thanks to neighborhood phone lines that tend to overload. Or is it merely a convenient dodge? From what we can glean, he appears to have inherited as much neurosis from his parents' dysfunction as have his sisters. So maybe he's lying low.
Though the movie that's been made of the Wagners' get-back-in-touch mission, The Talent Given Us, plays out like a hybrid of Lost in America and The Daytrippers, its impetus is squarely in the reality craze. All the Wagners are real people playing themselves in a story concocted by writer/director Andrew (to reflect, one assumes, their actual personalities or at least fun-house reflections of same). It's like a videotaped, considerably more enticing version of The Feldman Dynamic, the unpalatable theater-verité experiment Orlando's unpalatable Feldman family was pushing a few Fringe Festivals back.
Sometimes, the line between truth and artifice blurs into nothingness. In both real life and the movie, daughter Emily is a 10-year veteran of the cast of the TV series E.R. a semicelebrity status that figures comically into the film's plot when she has to visit a real emergency room. Sis Maggie, too, is an actress (though it's not stressed nearly as heavily in the movie), making one wonder if the film project's greatest worth was as catharsis or a totally bitchin' résumé entry for everybody involved.
Whatever the intent, the upshot is a feature that's far more watchable than one might expect. Despite the grave state of Allen and Judy's marriage, the tone remains lightly comic at all but the tensest of times. Bons mots fly back and forth inside the car, with each game of scripted one-upmanship reaching its apotheosis moments before a scene ends in a quick cut. The rhythm is that of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, and the acting is a near-perfect match not just when it comes to legitimate thesps Emily and Maggie. Their retiree parents who list no acting experience in their bios but who shoulder the majority of the movie's dramatic burden nonetheless perform work that's in line with the standards of decent community theater. Their readiness to play makes them eminently embraceable.
It's disappointing, though, that the family's propensity for self-revelation eventually descends into the gauche. At some point along the way, the Wagners became so taken with their own self-perceived kookiness that they didn't know where to stop. Just when you've adapted to the odd spectacle of mom entreating dad to "Fuck me" by writing it off as mature self-mockery, you get a segment in which Emily and a friend describe their masturbatory fantasies while acting them out. The scene contains a reference to Adrien Brody and the Warsaw ghetto that makes even Roman Polanski look appropriate by association. TMI, my dears.
At least all the chatter has a point. Underneath its po-mo drollery, The Talent Given Us is a story about loyalty. It's about the ties that bind a couple after years together, and how flimsy those ties can sometimes look. When the Wagner party reaches Las Vegas, Allen and Judy's relationship has reached its severest crisis point. As he sidles up beside her at a gaming table, she issues a challenge that's fraught with implication: "Are you betting for me or against me?" With their son's script as a guide, they're standing in testament to the idea that love is often just a case of remembering whose side you're on.