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Keeping Up With the Kennedys

So they care a lot about Camelot. So what?

It's hard to fault The House of Yes, the wry toast of this year's Sundance Film Festival, for its limitations as a film. In fact, it's hardly a film at all; rather, it's a barely staged five-handed farce that trails its amiable cast around a looming Victorian mansion over the course of a dramatically stormy weekend.

Adapted by San Francisco theater director Mark Waters from a play by Wendy MacLeod, the movie is mannered to the point of hysteria, with brittle fusillades of dialogue that bounce around the set, often seemingly out of the actors' control. Despite the dark "secret" shared by the principals, it is nowhere near as black nor as comic as it ought to be.

The action takes place during a family reunion over Thanksgiving weekend 1983 -- 20 years to the day after the Kennedy assassination -- in an affluent D.C. suburb just across the way from one of the Kennedy compounds. Unlike The Myth of Fingerprints or the upcoming The Ice Storm, two postmortems of dysfunctional families that manage to balance absurdism and pathos without departing from plausible realism, The House of Yes goes off the scale in its garish caricatures. The family's self-appointed Jackie-O (the ubiquitous Parker Posey) falls in and out of institutions and medicated fogs, negotiating a bit of a Bouvier fixation. But she's on her best behavior in anticipation of the arrival of Marty (Josh Hamilton), her twin, confidant and soulmate, who has somehow escaped to New York, where people aren't nearly so crazy.

Meanwhile, younger brother Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr., son of you know who) has abandoned life at a prestigious college. Presiding over the resident chaos is Genevieve Bujold as the footloose matriarch, whose husband disappeared the day Camelot crumbled. Or is he dead and buried out in the back yard? No one seems to know for sure. When Marty shows up unannounced with a fiancee (Tori Spelling, daughter of you know who), head snaps ensue.

To be fair, everyone involved performs admirably. Bujold, acting as though she was recently airlifted from the asylum in King of Hearts, is as Old World elegant as the moldering drapes and brings a refreshing sense of European propriety to these textbook eccentrics. Hamilton, Posey's co-star from Kicking and Screaming, seems amenable to helping her recreate the Zapruder film on demand, yet he looks far too well adjusted to be party to this madness. Even Prinze is affable enough, although he seems too streetwise to be related to these people. Still, it's hard to see past his name and the problem with untimely tragedy in his own family tree, both of which threaten to reduce his casting to mere novelty.

Likewise with Spelling; she's surprisingly pleasant playing broad comedy. Still, it's hard to see past her father's name as the film's financing entity, and difficult to consider the roughly million-dollar budget an investment rather than a healthy graduation gift.

But ultimately, how you feel about this film depends on how you feel about Posey, the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi of independent cinema. She was bestowed the socialist-realist Special Recognition for Acting Award at Sundance for her appearance in House of Yes -- an award apparently created especially for her. (At Sundance she was also on display in Clockwatchers and Suburbia -- not to mention in the scads of media attention she selflessly commandeered.) Some of us find her charming (I guess, kind of), but a little goes a long way.

There's a reason you don't see Posey effortlessly slipping in and out of Hollywood factory issues like her fellow indie divas Julianne Moore and Lili Taylor. Her constant mugging and self-involvement subsume any character she elects to assay; she sucks up all the oxygen in the room. I realize she may be the new Madonna to 20-year-old starlet wannabes everywhere, but even the old Madonna became a little much to take after a while. You risk overexposure when you act in everything that comes along.

Meanwhile, the entire Kennedy conceit seems spot-welded. No doubt it's intended as an indictment of privilege, the "house of yes" being the class-based immunity that has crippled that particular dynasty, but the Kennedy myth is top-loaded with way more symbology than simple wealth. The missing-in-action patriarch who presumably inspired the film family's twisted legacy: What was he? An ogre and a sybarite? A nouveau riche criminal whose betrayal of his own dark origins led hubris-like to tragedy? The House of Yes never says.

Similarly, we wonder about the younger brother -- is he heir apparent to the throne? Secretly ruthless or vindictive? Does the brothers' common romance of a supposedly glamorous outsider belie any Marilyn Monroe subtext? The play washes its hands of the whole business, contenting itself with the pink chenille suit and pillbox hat Posey's Jackie-O capers about in. It was funny 20 years ago on the Animal House parade float, and it's funny here. You'd just expect more from Kennedy obsessives.

Still, it's not The Peacemaker. In this day and age, that's something.

The House of Yes.
Directed by Mark Waters. With Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Genevieve Bujold and Tori Spelling.

Rated R.
85 minutes.

 
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