Breeding Familiarity

The Daytrippers

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Inventing the Abbotts

area theaters, starts Friday

FAMILIES ARE THE perfect and often primary fuel for storytelling. They have all the raw material any tale needs: multiple characters with interlocking traits and a sweeping timeline that can be handily chopped up into a plot. So it's a wonder that any movie involving families can blow it. Yet many family sagas get stuck in such kneejerk-isms as long-withheld secrets, smoldering categorical resentments, and hierarchical roles, like ruts down a bad road. Maybe this rote assemblage happens because writers forget that while families may have their patterns, individual characters really shouldn't. We all come from families of one kind or another, but we need to think of ourselves as one of a kind.

Happily, writer-director Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers is full of family but focused on individuals. To be honest, it's based on an absurdly contrived (and even familiar) straight-line plot gimmick, but as a low-key road trip/encounter session it transcends gimmickry with economical charm. It starts in a Long Island suburb on the day after Thanksgiving, where Eliza D'Amico (Hope Davis) lovingly sends her husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) off to work, only to discover right after he leaves that he's gotten a mash note from someone named Sandy.

This love letter quotes the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, which is a first clue that the film's journey from suburbia will follow some inventive twists. I'm ashamed to admit how I got suckered, but Mottola's scriptwriting sleight-of-hand gradually gathers Hope, her parents (Anne Meara and Pat McNamara), her sister Jo (Parker Posey), and Jo's boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber) in the old wood-sided station wagon, sending them off to find Louis and settle this Sandy business.

The trip into Manhattan does lead to Sandy, but more importantly it looks inside the travelers and the people they meet. Carl, for example, is a bad would-be novelist with absurd politics, but also a quick help with first aid. Mom is alternately loving and manipulative; Dad is a silent sufferer who still offers the smartest gesture at the end. Because no such trip can be smooth, the detours run into other people's lives, thereby revealing alternate notions of "family."

Mottola doesn't beat this nearly dead horse of a theme, but occasional references (to a father who was "a cross between Fred MacMurray and Pol Pot," for instance) hint at a central concept. Frankly, I was more diverted by his sheer virtuosity--not just his impeccable casting and direction of actors (yielding Davis's blank but palpable dread), but the politely in-your-face camerawork in the car, where faces (thankfully undistorted) loom right up to the lens and nearly burst out of the frame. And the way in which even minor figures dryly reveal their own insufficiencies suggests that Mottola's target is not so much the crippling effect of family but the generally laughable weakness of human nature.

Conversely, Inventing the Abbotts unloads more conventional family baggage. It's based on a Sue Miller short story, but compared to Mottola's original script, it's far less literate. The chief goal here seems to be reframing 1950s melodrama for an image-conscious age. I had my suspicions while watching it that on-screen brothers Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) and Jacey Holt (Billy Crudup) were hired more for their mannequin cheekbones and matching eyebrows than anything else--a hunch confirmed by the April issue of Vanity Fair, wherein Phoenix broods in a Prada suit.

Doug and Jacey are the small-town sons of a long-suffering widow (Kathy Baker, playing not far from her Super Mom on Picket Fences). They are transfixed both from afar and up close by the Abbott girls, whose dad (Will Patton, typically tight-jawed and hostile) is rich and throws ostentatious parties, and who may have done the Holts a disfavor or two over the years. It's no great shock that the story arranges to have hot-blooded Jacey sleep with each of the Abbotts, while soulful Doug broods from afar.

Fully fleshed out by period settings and a deliberate pace, this is no mere poor/rich romantic contest, and it isn't a Romeo and Juliet spin-off either. But it doesn't seem to be much else. While Phoenix and Liv Tyler (as the youngest and most vulnerable of the Abbotts) manage some genuinely tender chemistry, the movie as a whole forces its characters to suffer according to the routine pattern, because of some unseen machinations in their parents' pasts. An embellishment on Miller's plot, this backstory seems far more interesting in its absence than what's on screen--which is mainly handsome and only a notch beyond Aaron Spelling's idea of a "family saga."

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