So many contemporary comedies have a sincerity problem. Filmmakers convinced that they’re reaching further and higher than lowly laugh machines (or studio executives convinced they need to make a movie with “heart”) allow potentially funny movies to roll over around the hour mark, sometimes earlier, selling out comic energy for lessons learned and characters arced. If nothing else—and it does come dispiritingly close to “nothing else”—The Estate avoids this grim fate. The premise is not unlike the forgotten 1994 movie Greedy, where an all-star cast of bickering family members converged upon their rich and supposedly near-death uncle (Kirk Douglas). That movie, like so many others before and after, went soft and sincere when it should have sharpened its knives. The Estate’s knives, meanwhile, are perhaps the only sharp thing about it.
The family member here is Aunt Hilda (Kathleen Turner), a hack-comic screenwriter’s vision of how older people deal with multiple cancers and mere weeks to live: With plenty of colorful cursing and surprising lucidity! (Aunt Hilda is only really afflicted when it comes to making her existence unpleasant for others, like requiring a colostomy bag changed—and the movie doesn’t seem to know enough about illness to make this inconsistency an actual running gag.) Hilda never married or had children of her own, but she does have three nieces and a nephew, who all feel like they deserve to inherit her substantial fortune, and could charm Hilda into it, given half the chance.
Sisters Macey (Toni Collette) and Savanna (Anna Faris) are in particularly dire circumstances, as a bank prepares to foreclose on the family café they inherited from their late father. Their crass, sleazy cousin Richard (David Duchovny) seems least in need of the money, but he’s also kept in closest touch with Hilda—whose favorite, regardless, is cousin Beatrice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who shows up on Hilda’s doorstep with her chef husband (Ron Livingston) in tow. A competition for Hilda’s affection quickly develops, with Savanna and Macey as the underdogs who convince themselves to sink further beneath their cousins’ level.
Writer-director Dean Craig has experience crafting farces out of human pettiness, punctured social rituals and general venality; he wrote both the original Death at a Funeral and its American remake. He’s a bit lacking, however, in actually finding the laughs in his shopworn material. He tends instead to set up “funny” situations (Richard attempts to strike an unsavory deal with Macey; Savanna and Macey track down Hilda’s high school crush for a date) and have characters react to them by saying “fuck” with such deadening, self-regarding frequency that the profanity winds up holding about as much zing as a line from Full House, while scene after scene is staged with a handheld camera wobbling around like a bad imitation of Arrested Development. Without any actual classicism to accompany Craig’s outdated notions of outrageousness, the movie quickly turns fustier than its edgy posturing lets on. Craig simply watches a bunch of selfish people behave badly in predictable ways, and occasionally has them lunge at each other in anger. How perfectly droll!
Collette is stuck in a sad-sack role, and Duchovny’s cheerful willingness to play an unrepentant skeeze isn’t enough. Most of the scant half-laughs come from Anna Faris, as the messier and more impulsive of the two sisters. It’s not a great role, or even a good one, so much as it is her first movie appearance in four and a half years, and one blessedly relieved of the straight-woman responsibilities she seemed to shoulder on Mom. Terrible as it is, The Estate does contain occasional reminders of Faris’ comic skill: How she can get laughs with reaction shots, or from material as thin as her yelling “think about it!” at her sister 10 or 12 times. If that sounds less than cutting-edge, wait until you behold the running gag about Savanna thinking that her younger half-sister’s Dungeons & Dragons obsession is—get this—lame!
The Estate does have the courage of its convictions; the problem is, its convictions never develop beyond “people like money” and “people sometimes call each other naughty words.” Craig has the jaundiced view of humanity that informs a lot of dark comedies, and admirably refuses to sell it out for phony uplift. Then, almost as if assuring us he won’t be tempted to soften his tone, he leaves out any perceptible sense of joy, too.
Director: Dean Craig
Writer: Dean Craig
Starring: Toni Collette, Anna Faris, David Duchovny, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Kathleen Turner
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.