Review: ‘Family Squares,’ starring Ann Dowd, Judy Greer, Billy Magnussen, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Casey Wilson and Henry Winkler

April 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

“Family Squares” cast members. Pictured in top row, from left to right: Judy Greer, Margo Martindale and Henry Winkler. Pictured in bottom row, from left to right: Sam Richardson, Timothy Simons and Billy Magnussen (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Family Squares”

Directed by Stephanie Laing

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, in North Carolina, New York City, Connecticut and other parts of the world, the comedy/drama film “Family Squares” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with one Asian and one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Before and after an American family’s matriarch dies, various members of the family meet on videoconference calls to talk about the clan’s frequently difficult relationships and some family secrets that cause conflicts. 

Culture Audience: “Family Squares” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s cast members and stories about bickering family members who still love each other despite their differences.

June Squibb in “Family Squares” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Neither terrible nor great, “Family Squares” is a flawed comedy/drama that’s elevated by the talent of the movie’s cast members. It’s an uneven but well-acted movie about a family gathering on videoconference calls. Directed by Stephanie Laing, “Family Squares” has a title that refers to how the family members appear on screen in squares because of the videoconference format. It’s another movie about people being unable to interact in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Family Squares” (which Laing co-wrote with Brad Morris) won’t be considered a classic COVID-19 pandemic movie, but it might interest people who are curious to see a scripted story about how large families stayed in touch during the pre-vaccine lockdowns of the pandemic.

The movie, which takes place and was filmed in 2020, has the expected squabbles between these relatives, but there are enough tender moments and comedy to make the emotions well-rounded. Where the movie falters is in some of the dialogue, which can sometimes be too corny or too contrived. However, the cast members’ performances make the movie’s characters believable. You might see parts of yourself or people you know in some of these family members, even if what some these characters say occasionally sounds like an overly calculated movie script.

“Family Squares,” which centers on the fictional Worth family, could have done a better job of explaining in the beginning how each family member is related to each other. Unless you have an excellent memory or are taking notes, it might be very easy to get confused by the first 10 to 15 minutes of the movie, which is kind of a jumbled mess, where the characters show up on screen and then babble on about various things.

Here are the characters of the Worth family who participate in these videoconference calls:

  • Mabel (played by June Squibb) is the family’s feisty matriarch, who is in her 90s and dying in a hospice/nursing home somewhere in New York state. Mabel passes away during the first videoconference call that’s seen in the movie. Mabel divorced her husband (who is now deceased) many years ago and has been married to a much-younger woman for the past four years. Mabel’s two children from her marriage to her ex-husband are son Bobby and daughter Diane.
  • Judith Joyner (played by Ann Dowd), Mabel’s soft-spoken wife, lives in New York City, and has been unable to visit Mabel in person during Mabel’s final days because of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
  • Bobby (played by Henry Winkler), Mabel’s bachelor son, has a rebellious past and a tense relationship with his younger sister Diane, who were both raised on a farm in Spring Hope, North Carolina.
  • Diane (played by Margo Martindale), Mabel’s strong-willed younger child, doesn’t think highly of Bobby because she thinks he’s irresponsible and flaky. Diane, who lives in Connecticut, is a widow and a mother of five adult children: son Bret, daughter Dorsey, son Chad, son Robert and daughter Katie.
  • Bret (played by Timothy Simons) is a widower and a failed business entrepreneur who is raising his daughter Cassie (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) on his own.
  • Dorsey (played by Judy Greer) is a neurotic single mother who is currently on a road trip (in a recreational vehicle camper) with her reluctant 17-year-old son Max. Dorsey has a longtime love/hate relationship with her younger sister Katie. Max’s father, who is described as a deadbeat dad who abandoned Dorsey and Max, is not a part of Max’s life.
  • Chad (played by Scott MacArthur), a bachelor with no children, is a fairly successful self-help guru and author, who thinks that he’s the one who has a life that is the most enviable out of all of his siblings.
  • Robert (played by Billy Magnussen) is a ne’er-do-well bachelor with no children. Robert jumps from job to job and has a younger brother inferiority complex with Chad, who bullied Robert when they were children. Robert claims to be calling from Russia, where he says he is hiding out for top-secret reasons that have to do with Robert’s computer hacking.
  • Katie (played by Casey Wilson) is the youngest of Diane’s children and the only one of her siblings to still live in their North Carolina hometown of Spring Hope. Katie is very image-conscious and has a bad habit of being tardy. Katie and her husband Kevin have three underage kids together, but Katie is the only one in their household who participates in the videoconference calls.
  • Max (played by Maclaren Laing), Dorsey’s marijuana-smoking son, loves his mother, but he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time with her. Max was never close to his great-grandmother Mabel, so he is emotionally unaffected when Mabel dies.
  • Cassie (played by Elsie Fisher), Bret’s quiet and introverted teenage daughter, was emotionally attached to her great-grandmother Mabel, so she is devastated when Mabel dies.

The movie’s unseen narrator is someone named Bill (voiced by Rob Reiner), whose identity is revealed toward the end of the movie. It might be easy to figure out who Bill is, based on his comments and observations. Some viewers might think the narration is unnecessary and annoying, while other viewers might think the narration is necessary and charming.

Someone who pops in occasionally during these videoconference calls is Kelly (played by Zoë Chao), the hospice nurse who was taking care of Mabel before Mabel passed away. Kelly is the one who sets up the videoconference call for Mabel, who is computer-illiterate and too sick to do it herself. After Mabel dies, Kelly plays video messages that Mabel left for her surviving family members.

Kelly has an awkward moment with Judith when, after Mabel dies, Judith wants to arrange to get Mabel’s personal items that were at the hospice, but Judith is not allowed to claim Mabel’s items. Kelly has to tell Judith that it’s because the hospice doesn’t have Judith listed as a family member, even though Judith and Mabel were legally married. This scene is a depiction of what LGBTQ people often have to go through when their spouses or partners die, and the spouses or partners who are left behind are impeded by homophobic policies and laws that deprive them of their rights. All of the members of the Worth family love and accept Judith, but the movie never bothers to explain why Mabel—who knew she was dying and was living openly as a queer married woman—never made the proper spousal arrangements for Judith at this hospice.

Another person who is part of these videoconference calls is a funeral director/attorney named Alex (played by Sam Richardson), who is put in an uncomfortable position when the Worth family members disagree over whether or not to have a virtual/online funeral for Mabel. Judith is a part of these funeral arrangements. And the decision about the funeral isn’t the only conflict in this family.

Mabel drops two bombshells in her farewell videos that are shown after her death: First, she announces that somewhere on the family farm property is something valuable. “We are really, filthy, stinking, fucking rich,” Mabel says in the video. Some of the family members immediately want to go to the property to hunt for what they think might be hidden treasure and possibly find it before the other family members. Bill can be heard in a voiceover saying, “Nothing like an inheritance to get the family greed boiling.”

Mabel’s other shocking revelation is that she says one of the family members who is a sibling is actually not a biological sibling. Mabel refuses to go into any further details and tells her family members that they have to figure out this secret on their own. This family secret actually makes “Family Squares” more interesting than it could have been, so it’s one of the main reasons why the movie can hold people’s attention.

There are other family secrets that are revealed during these calls, but they are somewhat mild in comparison to the one about who are the real biological parents of the person who’s “not a sibling.” There’s also the matter of who else in the family knew about this secret, which could threaten to destroy relationships in this family. Judith admits she knows the secret, but she tells everyone: “It’s not for me to say.”

In a movie with very talented cast members, it’s hard to go wrong with their performances. Greer and Martindale stand out the most because not only do their characters of Dorsey and Diane have outspoken personalities, but they also have the most emotional depth. All of the other cast members perform well in their character roles, which at times can get a little two-dimensional and can reduce them to stereotypes.

Laing gives mostly solid direction to “Family Squares,” which could have done without some of the slapstick shenanigans between Chad and Robert that cheapen the quality of the film. A few of the characters, such as Cassie and Bret, are a bit underdeveloped. Because there are so many family members and so many conflicts, at times “Family Squares” seems a little overstuffed. The first third of the movie tends to drag, the middle of the movie is a little scattered and unfocused, but the last third of the movie makes up for the story’s shortcomings.

Screen Media Films released “Family Squares” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 25, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Long Weekend’ (2021), starring Finn Wittrock and Zoë Chao

March 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Finn Wittrock and Zoë Chao in “Long Weekend” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Long Weekend”

Directed by Steve Basilone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic drama “Long Weekend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian and a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A depressed man meets a mysterious and fun-loving woman, but their budding romance is threatened by secrets.

Culture Audience: “Long Weekend” will appeal primarily to people who like fantastical elements to romantic stories and are willing to tolerate a movie that can be cliché-ridden and doesn’t live up to its ambitious potential.

Damon Wayans Jr. and Casey Wilson in “Long Weekend” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

The romantic drama “Long Weekend” makes a fairly well-intentioned attempt to be a deep, philosophical movie about the meaning of life, but the results are a shallow and very stereotypical movie about two people who meet and quickly fall in love. Even with a talented and appealing cast, “Long Weekend” is filled with too many plot holes and cloying moments to be anything but a lightweight and forgettable movie. There’s a sci-fi element of the film that’s also badly mishandled.

“Long Weekend” writer/director Steve Basilone says in the movie’s production notes that the film is loosely inspired by events he experienced in real life, when he went through a divorce and his mother had cancer around the same time. It’s too bad that so much of the movie feels very contrived, from the flimsy plot twists to the too-cutesy dialogue between people in their 30s. There’s nothing wrong with bringing some science fiction into a romantic drama, as long as the characters are believable and the sci-fi works well for the plot overall. (The 2004 classic “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one example of a sci-fi romantic drama that was done right.)

The beginning of “Long Weekend” starts out by showing how a Los Angeles writer named Bart Waters (played by Finn Wittrock) is experiencing a major slump in his life. A series of voicemail messages from a psychiatric facility are heard in voiceovers in the opening scenes. The messages indicate that Ben recently spent some time as a patient in the facility, but he’s been avoiding making a follow-up appointment so his doctor can evaluate his out-patient progress.

It’s revealed a little later in the movie that Bart is recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. His beloved mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he had problems coping with this crisis. His emotional distress caused his fiancée Whit (played by Jess Jacobs) to leave him. And that’s when Bart really had a meltdown, which led to his stay in the psychiatric facility. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t show any of this trauma in flashbacks, because it would ruin the optimistic tone that this film is trying to convey.

Sometime during this psychiatric breakdown, Bart lost his job and could no longer afford his apartment rent. And so, in the beginning of the film, he’s shown already packed up and ready to move, as the apartment building’s no-nonsense manager Patricia (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells Bart that she’s about to show his apartment to a prospective tenant. The role of Patricia is very small, underwritten and actually unnecessary. It’s a waste of McLendon-Covey’s talent.

It’s unclear how long Bart was in the psychiatric facility, but his mother is now dead, and Bart apparently has no other family to turn to in this personal crisis. And so, Bart ends up moving into the garage of his best friend Doug (played by Damon Wayans Jr.), who was the person who recommended that Bart get psychiatric help. Doug lives with his wife Rachel (played by Casey Wilson) and their two kids. Doug and Rachel have a toddler daughter named Eve (played by Ellison Randell) and an energetic son named Teddy (played by Carter Morgan), who’s about 5 or 6 years old and likes to dress up as imaginary superheroes.

When Bart arrives at the house to move in, Doug generously tells Bart, “You can stay here forever.” Bart insists that his stay will be temporary, because he has a potential job lined up, and he plans to get his own place as soon as he can afford it. Bart gets the job, but it’s not his ideal gig.

Before his meltdown, Bart was a screenwriter. The first job that he gets after checking out of the psychiatric facility is writing for a medical supply catalogue. The interview is a blandly written scene showing the office manager named Larry (played by Jim Rash) reading a sample of a screenplay that Bart wrote about a man who has a nervous breakdown after his fiancée left him.

Larry remarks that although the screenplay is impressively realistic, catalogue writing is very different because it’s a form of advertising/marketing. Larry asks Bart if he’s up for this type of work, since catalogue writing isn’t as creatively exciting as writing a screenplay. Bart assures Larry that he wants the job. And then, Larry shows Bart a catheter and tells Bart that the job includes describing how to use a catheter. If this movie were a sitcom, that’s about the moment the fake-sounding laugh track would play.

One day, Bart decides to go by himself to a local arthouse movie theater that’s playing his favorite film: the 1979 satire “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers. Bart falls asleep during the movie. And when the movie ends, he is woken up by a woman named Vienna (played by Zoë Chao), another customer who was in the room. As he leaves the theater, Vienna runs after him because Bart left behind his denim jacket and a half-empty bottle of liquor. She returns these items to him. He thanks her, and they begin talking.

Now that Bart and Vienna have had this “meet cute” moment, it’s only a matter of time before they go through all the clichés that so many other romantic dramas like this tend to have when two young and attractive people inevitably get together. Someone in the would-be couple is socially awkward and introverted, while the other is bold and extroverted. These opposites attract and fall for each other, but then someone is reluctant to make a commitment. In this case, it’s because there’s a “big secret” that could ruin the relationship.

Immediately after returning Bart’s jacket and liquor bottle to him, Vienna tells him that she’s visiting Los Angeles. She asks Bart where she can get some of the liquor he has, because Vienna tells Bart that he looks like he could be fun. Judging by the way she’s smiling and flirting with him, it’s obvious she’s giving him a chance to ask her out on a date.

But gloomy Bart is too oblivious to these signals and tells Vienna about two nearby bars. She then says enthusiastically, “Let’s go!” And that’s when it dawns on Bart that Vienna is attracted to him. She laughs at all of his cheesy jokes and celebrity impersonations too. (Bart does lukewarm imitations of Al Pacino and Jimmy Stewart.)

The corny situations continue when they walk through a park and see some kids running past them with some sparklers. Vienna is fascinated by this sight, as if she’s never seen sparklers before. Bart is a little surprised that Vienna is acting as if sparklers are incredible inventions, and he starts to wonder if Vienna has led a very sheltered life.

During their walk through the park, he buys two sparklers from the kids and gives the sparklers to Vienna. And then, Bart and Vienna run around the park with the sparklers. How old are these people again? Twelve?

Vienna and Bart then go bar-hopping and discuss their favorite pop culture and guilty pleasures. Bart confesses that he’s watched “Being There” about 100 times since he first saw it a few years ago. However, Bart can’t really explain why he loves the movie so much, other than that seeing it makes him feel better about his life. Vienna does a terrible impersonation of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” for no other reason than to show Bart that she can do celebrity impersonations too.

Bart then tells Vienna about his mother dying of cancer the year before and how he’s still grieving. He also tells Vienna about the painful breakup with his ex-fiancée and how it’s left him in a dark emotional place. Vienna shows some sympathy, as an indication that she and Bart are starting to have an emotional connection other than doing bad mimicry of celebrities in movie scenes.

“Long Weekend” has a very self-aware moment when Bart, who’s starting to think that Vienna is too good to be true, asks her: “Are you for real? Are you one of those Manic Pixie Dream Girls?” Well, yes, in fact she is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a well-known movie stereotype of a quirky, upbeat female character who comes along to cheer up the male protagonist while he’s going through a tough time in his life. Just because “Long Weekend” brings up this Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype in a line of self-referencing dialogue, that doesn’t make the glib way that this stereotype is handled in the movie any better.

Bart notices that Vienna has some unusual quirks: She doesn’t own a cell phone, she says she left her ID at home, and she’s carrying around a huge wad of cash. Vienna explains to Bart that she has a lot of cash with her because her bank card isn’t working. Some more alcohol is consumed, Vienna and Bart play some pool, and they take pictures together in a photo booth. And when Bart walks Vienna back to the motel where she’s staying, he gives her his phone number, and they end up sleeping together.

What’s very contradictory about “Long Weekend” is that it wants people to believe that Vienna and Bart are a perfect match and it’s “love at first date.” But during their first date, Bart is very self-absorbed and doesn’t ask Vienna hardly anything about herself. It isn’t until the next day, when Bart happily tells Doug about Vienna, that Bart realizes that he doesn’t know basic things about Vienna.

Bart doesn’t know where she’s from, what she does for a living, and what she likes to do in her free time besides watching movies and drinking at bars. These are the kinds of things that two strangers should talk about on a first date if they’re interested in a romance beyond sexual attraction. It makes you wonder why this movie is trying so hard to convince viewers that this is supposed to be some grand love story when, by all indications, this was an impulsive hookup.

The day after Bart and Vienna first have sex, Bart describes Vienna to Doug as if Vienna isn’t just a one-night stand but could possibly be his next big love. Therefore, it’s odd that Bart doesn’t really ask her how long she’ll be in town after their first night together. If this relationship is supposed to blossom, Bart isn’t curious enough about Vienna to ask her how far away she lives. It’s an example of how there needed to be significant improvements to this movie’s screenplay.

Of course, Bart does see Vienna again. He goes back to the motel and asks her the questions that he should have asked before, including why she’s visiting Los Angeles. But she’s deliberately vague. In answer to Bart’s questions, Vienna says, “I work for this government agency. I work up north. I came to town to escape … work, everything, my mom.”

Vienna says that her mother has cancer, and the stress of taking care of her is what motivated Vienna to take this getaway trip. Just as Bart and Vienna start to form an emotional bond over their knowing what it’s like to have a mother with cancer, he freaks out when he sees that Vienna has thousands of dollars of cash in her purse. He demands to know if Vienna is hiding from the law or is up to something illegal. And that’s when Vienna tells Bart her big secret.

The rest of “Long Weekend” is a bit of a slog, as this secret affects the relationship between Bart and Vienna. There’s also a couple of more plot twists, with one more predictable than the other. Because Bart and Vienna got together so quickly after barely knowing each other, there are many parts of the movie that make the relationship look like it’s based more on lust than true love. For example, instead of dealing with the problems caused by Vienna’s secret, she just suggests to Bart that they have sex.

The movie is fairly problematic in how Bart and Doug constantly describe Vienna as a “girl.” They do not use the word “woman” to describe her. The couples in this movie are supposed to be in their mid-to-late 30s, but they act like Vienna is straight out of a sorority party and her purpose in life is to lift Bart out of his depression.

There’s very little thought in this story about Vienna’s problems (and she has quite a few), because it’s mostly about Bart’s wants and needs. Bart does an act of kindness to help Vienna with one of her problems. But then, the movie goes back to trying to make the audience believe that Bart’s wants and needs should matter more than Vienna’s, instead of them being equal partners.

And there’s a very strange scene of Doug and Rachel in their kitchen, shortly after they found out that Bart and Vienna hooked up. Bart is there too, when Rachel tells her kindergarten-age son Teddy, “Uncle Bart got laid!” And then Doug repeats it to Teddy, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to blab about a family friend’s sex life to a child of that age. The scene is supposed to be funny, but the comedy falls flat.

Fans of the ABC comedy series “Happy Endings” (which was on the air from 2011 to 2013) might be delighted to see “Happy Endings” co-stars Wayans and Wilson on screen together again. But their Doug and Rachel characters in “Long Weekend” are underdeveloped and written as a sitcom couple in a movie that’s supposed to be a romantic drama. And almost all of Doug and Rachel’s conversations in the movie are either stale one-liners or talking to Bart about his love life.

As for Wittrock and Chao, they certainly make an attractive-looking couple, and there’s some chemistry between them, but not enough to make it convincing that Vienna and Bart have fallen madly and passionately in love with each other. Chao has a lot of on-screen charisma (and Vienna is supposed to be more exuberant than Bart), but there’s a level of immaturity that Vienna and Bart have that makes their romance look very “only in a movie” phony. Maybe if their characters were in their teens or 20s, it might be more believable. But Vienna and Bart both look like they’ve experienced too much of life to act so willfully naïve about love, dating and romance.

And since Bart and Vienna got together so quickly in the movie, there’s no “will they or won’t they” suspense. And that means the movie drags out in very uninteresting ways, as Bart and Vienna go on some very stereotypical dates in the limited time that they have together. These dates could have been opportunities to bring more depth to the characters of Bart and Vienna, but these dates are superficial and actually quite monotonous.

The dialogue throughout “Long Weekend” is very trite, and the story skips over a lot of details that would make certain plot developments believable. The direction of the movie is pedestrian at best. Vienna and Bart barely know each other before they jump into a love relationship. By the end of this hackneyed and derivative movie, viewers will feel like they barely know these characters too.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 Films released “Long Weekend” in U.S. cinemas on March 12, 2021.

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