Joe Fine, the central character in the family drama Mighty Fine, is a tragic figure. He’s a seemingly successful businessman (played by Chazz Palminteri) who uproots his Jewish family from Brooklyn to New Orleans in 1974 for a better life. (And that makes sense because the Deep South is the epitome of tolerance, right? But more on that later.)
Fine is a larger-than-life personality who treats his family like royalty when he’s in a good mood, but there’s also a deep-seated anger just below the surface that erupts with the slightest provocation. It’s a constant, bi-polar roller-coaster for the Fine women: wife Stella (Andie MacDowell); and daughters Natalie (Jodelle Ferdland) and Maddie (played by MacDowell’s real-life daughter, Rainey Qualley, in her first film role).
Writer-director Debbie Goodstein crafts a pastiche of troubled fathers, including her own, in the Joe Fine character. Like many men of his generation (WWII vets), Fine has been told to tough things out—we learn that his own father knocked him out once after Joe complained too much about a toothache.
Men like Joe have only one outlet to deal with their depression and anger—taking everything out on their families. Joe’s abuse is more emotional and verbal, but there are times that the abuse turns physical.
In one scene, he gifts Maddie with a new car for her 18th birthday and she takes the entire family for a spin. When father and daughter get into an argument over her driving, she gets out of the car and starts walking home, calling her father an f-ing asshole in the process. In what is supposed to be one of the more dramatic moments of the film’s second act, Joe tries to run her over. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get past the cheesy film cuts of Qualley’s really bad flop/fall away from the car. It came off as more campy than dramatic.
And that’s one of the major problems with Mighty Fine: Whereas family dramas like Ordinary People, The Squid and the Whale or The Family Stone pack emotional punches minus the constant cacophony of raised voices or fists—think of the opening tennis match in The Squid and the Whale—both the tender and the trying scenes in Mighty Fine feel force-fed. As a result, we’re left with something akin to a Lifetime movie, as there are a number of interesting possibilities, which could have added complexity and depth to the film, that are never fleshed out.
For example, Joe’s not as successful as he wants everyone to believe. His apparel business is going down the tubes, so he gets a loan from the mob to fund his lavish lifestyle. Yet we never see the consequences of his failure to pay back his loan shark.
Another avenue that’s never explored is the assimilation of a Yankee Jewish family in 1970s New Orleans. Maddie says that she’s trying to fit in and find friends, yet she finds a Christian suitor (who wears a very large crucifix necklace, lest the viewer forget he’s a gentile) by the end of the first day of school. And when her father goes crazy over an unscheduled pool party, we can’t feel that sorry for her because she has more friends than we did in high school. (This scene is another loaded with unintentional humor, as she yells, “You threatened all my new friends with a gun, dad!”)
Since this is Qualley’s first film, it’s only fair to cut her a little slack. Her mom has no such excuse. Andie MacDowell made a name for herself in lighter film fare: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day, Green Card and the indie blockbuster Sex, Lies and Videotape. But it’s a bit of a stretch to watch her play a Polish Holocaust survivor. Meryl Streep we can believe, but MacDowell’s performance (and accent) are a little uneven throughout.
Although it’s tempting to typecast Palminteri as an Italian mobster in almost anything he does, he gives a better performance than his co-stars as the tortured soul who’s feeling trapped in his life. We only wish that the material he had to work with was stronger than movie-of-the-week fare.
Director: Debbie Goodstein
Writer: Debbie Goodstein
Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Andie MacDowell, Jodelle Ferland, Rainey Qualley
Release Date: May 25, 2012