There are dysfunctional families… and then there are the Conways.
Things are tough for the Conway family these days. Once upon a time, they were a happy, perfectly ordinary family. Then young Linda Conway (Ivy Latimer, Home and Away) died in a tragic accident, sending the other family members reeling into a state of dysfunction and chaos.
The family matriarch is Gloria (Geena Davis, The Fly), who has become angry and embittered over the years for a variety of reasons. Her husband Ray (Joel Tobeck, 30 Days of Night) has decided he wants to start a new life; filing for divorce and starting a relationship with a friendlier (and younger) woman. The teenage kids are Larry (Harry Cook), Gene (Joshua Denyer), and Billy (Harrison Gilbertson). Larry’s constantly in trouble with the law, while Gene has been in a coma for years. That’s left Billy as the one truly stable element in the family for quite some time.
Alas, things change. For some unknown reason, Billy starts to act out and involve himself in a variety of dangerous stunts and wild pranks. What’s causing the unusual new behavior? Where will the Conway family end up when the dust settles?
Accidents Happen is a perfect example of a film that’s killed by its inability to find a consistent tone. You get the general idea of what the movie is aiming for, but it never quite sticks the landing or manages to find its bearings. The film is clearly operating under the influence of films like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, which spells trouble immediately: not only do both of those films have distinct tones that are difficult to recreate, they’re also tonally different films that are operating on very different levels. By attempting to fuse elements of both movies into a single cinematic experience, Accidents Happen creates a mess.
The film opens distinctly in American Beauty territory, with a smarmy Kevin Spacey impersonator offering cutesy commentary over a horrific scene (an old man burns to death while a young child watches). This becomes tedious and aggravating very quickly, as the film’s supposedly witty detachment lacks genuine wit and insight. The film switches tack just as we’re finally starting to get used to its snarky attitude; attempting to convince us to accept the film as serious drama. This is a difficult transition to make after an endless string of scenes in which we’re asked to accept that the characters are puppet-like subjects of satire.
Let’s set aside the tonal issues for a moment, as that isn’t the only area in which the film struggles. The film also fails completely in its attempt to immerse us in a particular time and place (something The Ice Storm did so very effectively). The movie is primarily set in New England during the early 1980s, but the filmmakers get too many little details wrong. Too many modern elements are permitted to slip in, the music too often fails to properly reflect the period, and the costumes and set design are frequently unconvincing (look at those police uniforms, for instance). Worst of all is the fact that most of the actors are very unconvincing Americans. Accidents Happen is an Australian production, so most of the cast members other than Geena Davis are from that area. Alas, the American accents on display are flat-out bad, either descending into overdone stereotypes or frequently betraying the Australian origins of the actors. Even some of the dialogue feels a little off, such as the scene in which a kid says, “What of it?” rather than, “So what?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of Australian film crews making movies about Americans. But if you’re going to make a period film in a foreign location, you must make the effort required to convince viewers the film is really taking place in that setting.
The performances are merely adequate for the most part, as the young actors seem so focused on trying to nail down their accents that they don’t really manage to invest much else of interest in their roles. Geena Davis is not only the most well-known cast member in the film, she also runs circles around everyone in the acting department. Davis turns in a ferociously memorable performance; a foul-mouthed and razor-sharp turn that demonstrates a new side of her talent. It’s too bad that the role is trapped in such an underwhelming film.
The hi-def transfer gets the job done, even if seeing the film on Blu-ray only accentuates the little design flaws throughout. Darker scenes get a bit murky on occasion; particularly some of the scenes in which Billy is out late at night. Flesh tones seem just about right, while detail is solid throughout. The film’s color palette is a slightly off-putting mix of vibrantly colorful and blandly dingy, which seems like an odd attempt at capturing the feel of the period. Audio is stellar throughout, with relatively minimal sound design and the on-the-nose original score blending quite nicely with the dialogue. Nothing’s going to blow you away in either the audio or video department, but it’s all fine. Special features are limited to some brief featurettes (the three-minute “When Featurettes Happen” and the two-minute “Glorious Gloria”), eight minutes of extended cast and crew interviews, six minutes of deleted scenes and a trailer.
Accidents Happen is an unpersuasive film that only serves to remind viewers of similar, better movies. Too bad.