A first impression of the titular family in Cherie Nowlan's "Introducing the Dwights" (formerly known as "Clubland") has one imagining the film will be a sunny, Aussie-style quirkfest in the vanilla vein of many a Sundance flick. When his new girlfriend, Jill (Emma Booth), asks about meeting the parents, hesitant protagonist Tim (Khan Chittenden) warns: "They're entertainers." Brenda Blethyn, as the mum, holds down the household with a day job at a canteen and moonlights as a bawdy stand-up comic, while an estranged father (Frank Holden) clings to his former glory as a one-hit wonder and maintains a living as a security guard topped off by the occasional singing gig at bingo games. How much more self-consciously zany can the set-up get? Oh yeah, cheeky, developmentally disabled Mark (Richard Wilson) rounds out the family four.
As in her first feature (known alternately as "Thank God He Met Lizzie" and "The Wedding Party"), Nowlan gears the audience up for silly, obnoxious antics only to slowly strip away the superficially "fun" exterior to reveal a darker core. In both movies, she positions a malleable male at the center and turns the camera on him as he ricochets between women. At his post-nuptial reception, Richard, in "The Wedding Party," flits between the present with his now-wife and past memories of a former girlfriend; in "Introducing the Dwights," mother Jean and could-be-the-one girlfriend are the two poles between which Tim vacillates. But unlike that debut, which somehow straggles its way towards an affectively disillusioning conclusion on relationships (mostly due to its piercing description of the inner world of a couple), her latest candied vision with a cynical center lacks emotional resonance.
Although framed predictably as a tug-of-war between a mother and her son's girlfriend, the underlying thematic of "Introducing the Dwights" isn't without promise: A woman past her prime - having given up a "luminous career" in entertainment (itself a delusion) to raise her two boys - seethes with bitterness at their burgeoning independence. But Keith Thompson's laborious script utterly mismanages the concept, and is aided in no way by Nowlan's awkward direction. The way the women are written leaves the actresses no room to maneuver outside the broadness of cliched female behavior. Both Jean and Jill so constantly verge on the edge of hysteria that, between the former's mood swings (even the talents of Blethyn can't keep Jean from shrillness) and the latter's crying jags and ultimatums ("It's her or me!"), the characters quickly devolve into unsympathetic hormonal nightmares.
The most intriguing moments are quickly derailed, as in Jill's dunderheaded, diffusing query to Tim after witnessing a particularly disastrous day in family dysfunction wherein Mark, amidst an alcohol-infused afternoon, gets slapped around by his mum for daring to cross the street to play with the neighbor's dog: "She doesn't like me, does she?" And subterranean strands that might move the film into more complex territory likewise remain dangling, such as an evident class distinction between Jill's family and Tim's - made manifest in her parents' posh house with pool as compared to his shabbier digs featuring an above-ground version.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age film about both mother and son as the latter prepares to leave the nest, "Dwights" portrays Tim as so spineless, passively transitioning from one woman to another without truly asserting himself, that we can hardly view the happy ending - inclusive of a group hug and spastic dancing-with any triumph.
Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.