Top positive review
27 people found this helpful
A Big Hearted Eight Part Mockumentary Series About A Search For One's True Identity
on July 28, 2013
The HBO series "Family Tree" is the latest endeavor by comic genius Christopher Guest (co-created with Jim Piddock, another terrific comedic actor). Guest has been in the business for decades as a writer, director and actor (shout out to Spinal Tap). For me, his artistic peak as a filmmaker came with his series of faux documentary features that began with 1996's "Waiting for Guffman" and carried on with 2000's "Best in Show," 2003's "A Mighty Wind," and 2006's "For Your Consideration." Guest's specialty in these films is that he really understands his subjects and has a genuine affection for them. Although absurd, they have an underlying tenderness and sweetness. He and his cast of largely improvisational performers (there is a somewhat regular stable) skewer topics such as amateur theater, dog shows, folk music, or the quest for Academy Award glory. Deadpan and droll, these features are both wickedly funny (especially Guffman and Show) and surprisingly truthful. Their humor stems from the fact that they treat their characters with respect and embrace the oddity inherent in the environments they inhabit. I mention this tone specifically, because if you have no idea what I'm talking about than "Family Tree" may confound your expectations somewhat.
Although moments in this eight part series are laugh out loud funny, the show's sense of humor can be understated as well. Chris O'Dowd plays a typical Londoner entering into an existential mid-life crisis. After losing his job and his girl, he becomes somewhat directionless. One day, he collects a strange box of remembrances left to him by a deceased Aunt he hardly knew. Upon poking through this rather meager collection, he finds an old photograph of (what he presumes) is his grandfather and this opens up an unexpected mission. He want to understand his family, his heritage, and maybe his own sense of identity in the process. As he embarks on a quest that will take him around England and eventually to California, he will meet an assortment of eccentrics ranging from odd to absolutely loony. The show is good natured, with charm to spare, and O'Dowd has a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is infectious. I was totally committed to his journey, no matter where it led.
Like the films I mentioned, this plays with a mockumentary feel where the actors are just allowed to play off one another extemporaneously. O'Dowd is assisted and often accompanied by his sister (Nina Conti) and exuberant best friend (Tom Bennett). The cast features Guest stalwarts like Michael McKean (O'Dowd's father), Ed Begley Jr., and Fred Willard with both Guest and Piddock also appearing. McKean is a standout and the source of some great running jokes (British TV, odd inventions). Bennett takes a rather conventional character of the bawdy best friend and serves up some of the biggest laughs. And O'Dowd is a terrific host to the proceedings. His reactions to what unfolds can be fantastic, I just loved watching his face. I have to (it is imperative) make special mention of Nina Conti, the show's absolute MVP in my estimation. Conti performs the entire show with a ventriloquist's monkey on her hand. Monkey (that's his name) has a scathing wit that often boils things down to their true essence. Reading this, you might think this borders on farce, but Conti is absolutely mesmerizing (she'd be on my short list for Supporting Actress at the Emmys). In the end, "Family Tree" might be too British, too quiet, or too odd for a mass market audience. But if you love Guest and/or British humor, "Family Tree" is a comedy with both laughs and heart. KGHarris, 7/13.