Rating: 1.5/5No child of the 1970s was more than three degrees of separation away from an angry dad. If you didn’t have an angry dad of your own, your best friend did, or your brother’s girlfriend, or maybe you just saw a lot of angry fathers on TV. That’s not to say that a father’s inappropriate rage against his children is harmless; far from it. However, it’s hardly new cinematic territory to portray a dysfunctional family headed by a stressed-out, verbally abusive father.
Mighty Fine, in part based on the life of writer-director Debbie Goodstein, doesn’t seem to realize how common fictional abusive fathers are, which goes a long way to explaining why there is precious little life in this slice-of-life drama. The film begins in 1974 when Joe Fine (Chazz Palminteri), the titular mad dad, uproots his Brooklyn family and heads for the deep South, ostensibly to be closer to the garment factory he owns. Joe promises his wife and two teen daughters wealth and a good life, while his wife promises the girls that their dad will finally stop yelling so much. Predictably, Joe’s verbal outbursts get worse after the move; if the pun of the film’s title doesn’t do you in, this heavy-handed manifestation of the phrase “going south” probably will.
Joe lashes out at clock-like intervals, first with mild snippiness, then outright anger, then threats of violence, then… well, you get the idea. His wife Stella (Andie MacDowell), a Jewish European woman he rescued while serving in World War II, is mostly helpless against him. The eldest daughter Maddie (Rainey Qualley, real-life daughter of MacDowell) begins to defend herself against her father’s verbal attacks while the youngest daughter Natalie (Jodelle Ferland), a budding writer, is slowly beaten down emotionally.
There is not one compelling thing about this film. It is a self-indulgent after-school special, so trite that “trite” fails as a sufficiently harsh descriptor. The performances are dull and disengaged, the cinematography is static and the music is there to force whimsy and nostalgia that the film cannot otherwise manage. Even the props are unimaginative, though care was obviously taken to get period-appropriate pieces and fashions.
Unfortunately, the same care was not taken with the script, which contains several obvious anachronisms. There is also the matter of the inexplicable use of 1990’s-era video and photos of Chazz Palminteri and Andie MacDowell to depict their characters when younger. While the narrator is telling us about Joe’s service during World War II, we’re seeing footage of Palminteri during what looks like a press junket from his Bullets Over Broadway days. Later, when told about Stella’s rescue from Nazi Germany, we’re shown a full-color publicity portrait of MacDowell in a flannel shirt and mom jeans.
The narrator (Janeane Garofalo) is Natalie as an adult, recalling her childhood immediately after the move to New Orleans. Because Natalie is a stand-in for Goodstein herself, it’s not a surprise that the attention is all on her, but it does not seem deserved within the context of the film. Rather than convey a sense of narrative focus, it instead portrays Natalie as the important daughter, the artistic one with a future. Eldest sister Maddie is reduced to little more than a delivery apparatus for stereotypical teenage outbursts or, for the occasional change, she serves as a bikini model. While Maddie lounges in her two-piece, Natalie struggles with a deep, meaningful poem entitled “Mighty Fine” and relentlessly compares herself to Anne Frank. It’s supposed to be charming but isn’t, especially when Natalie whines that she hasn’t suffered enough to write well, not like Anne Frank did.
The boredom this film generates is offensive on its own, more so when coupled with the token mentions of sexism, anti-Semitism and racism peppered throughout. These mentions hold no weight and are merely included for atmosphere, like striped pants and fat Elvis jokes. It’s a cynical ploy, but not surprising given how the film attempts, tentatively and without finesse, to portray the women of the Fine family learning to stand up to their tormenter as a metaphor for burgeoning societal changes toward women.
Chazz Palminteri may be a solid 15 years too old for the role of Joe, but he gives a competent performance as a father who doesn’t realize his life has come untethered. The most interesting elements of Mighty Fine were the brief peeks into Joe’s clothing manufacturing concern, a business so insolvent that Joe decides to make a deal with the New Orleans mob. Palminteri is in his element here, working within a sort of Garment Jungle atmosphere, and the timing of Joe’s business woes coincides with real-world legislation passed by the U.S. Senate that made it difficult for American companies to compete with businesses that moved their labor overseas.
This aspect of the film threatens to become fascinating, but like every almost-engaging moment, it’s quickly and safely relegated to literal background noise, which is great for those with delicate cardiovascular systems that might not be able to handle the strain of a fully-realized film. Goodstein must have assumed this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story was so compelling that no actual attempt to connect with an audience need be made, and indeed, none was. Mighty Fine plods along toward its predictable conclusion as though it had no other choice but to be a complete waste of time.