The fractious family dealing with the death of a matriarch or patriarch comedy — or drama — dates from the Greeks. So finding some new way of coming at it has proven a challenge over the decades.
But COVID provided one that director and co-writer Stephanie Laing and a vast crew of “names” overcame with “Family Squares.” It’s a cute and quirky COVID comedy built on Zoom calls, big secrets, sibling estrangement and amusingly “judgy” banter.
Anyone predisposed to like the off-center line-readings of Judy Greer, the curmudgeonly cracks of June Squibb, Earth Mama weariness of Margot Martindale, the blunt “honesty” of Anne Dowd and the late career realization Henry Winkler is still pretty damn funny — just to name the elder stateswomen and men of the cast — should get a kick from this.
Squibb plays the no-nonsense Mama Mabel who begat a daughter (Martindale) who had five children, leading to a couple of great-grandchildren as well. Mabel also gave birth to a feckless, self-absorbed and oh-so-Californian touchy-feely son (Winkler).
Greer, Billy Magnussen, Casey Wilson, Timothy Simons and Scott MacArthur play the grandchildren, each dealing with some sort of crisis, each overly dependent on “Granny” in ways that will become obvious. Elsie Fisher and MacLaren Laing play the great grandchildren, one dealing with an earlier loss that has her lashing out at her stumbling, needy dad (Simons), the other stuck on a road trip with his shattered, even-needier mom (Greer) who is RVing her way through Arizona to escape a divorce and pandemic.
The estimable Sam Richardson plays the funeral director.
“Shall we get down to the business of bereavement?” “Can I just STOP you right there?”
And Zoe Chao is the hospice nurse who presides over everybody who dials in to see Mabel Worth draw her last breaths.
Zoom? “It’s like watching the f—–g ‘Jetsons'” may be the pithiest summary of that experience ever.
Uncle Bobby (Winkler), who gets on everybody’s nerves, is quick to speak up and quicker to jump the gun on Mabel’s status.
“It’s her death rattle, it’s her soul trying to say ‘Goodbye.'”
Mabel does eventually pass, but she left behind videos giving hard-nosed advice about stumbling members of the family (most of them) and revealing wrongdoing of others, and reminding one and all “You’ve all been acting like jackasses” for the past year. The dings are quick to come and cut to the core. Noting a posh Zoom backdrop in a sibling’s kitchen — “How much did GRANDMA spend on that remodel?”
“I just want you to focus on your family and focus on you. You’ve never had a problem doing that in the past.”
The self-published author (Scott MacArthur), perhaps a war hero, at least in his mind — “I should write the obit. Have you had a chance to read my book?”
The funeral director doubles as an estate lawyer. Wait, what? “I AM in the Penny Saver now,” he chirps, angling for more business.
There’s also Mabel’s younger wife (Anne Dowd) back in New York, struggling to deal with how she’s been left out of much of this planning.
Sibling rivalry breaks down into “Look, we GET it, you’re BOTH the saddest.”
And every so often, the unseen narrator (Rob Reiner, sounding like he was recorded on a cellphone during a Zoom call) quotes George Burns and tries to move things along.
In terms of production values, “Family Squares” falls somewhere between the slick, purpose-made studio-backed romances “(Locked Down”) and the sea of more DIY affairs made by filmmakers hoping to be the first to initiate the “Lockdown” genre and use the limitations of a lockdown to his or her advantage.
The cast, as you’d expect, is superb, with every single player, many of them longtime audience favorites, delivering. The women are singularly impressive, so much so that even Chao brings such a zing to the hospice nurse that you forget she’s barely in it.
No, this isn’t deep. But there are some surprises and just enough laughs. If you’ve ever dealt with family over the death of a relative, the sting of recognition alone is worth an extra giggle or two.
Rating: R for language (profanity).
Cast: June Squibb, Judy Greer, Henry Winkler, Margot Martindale, Zoe Chao, Sam Richardson, Billy Magnussen, Casey Wilson, Timothy Simons, Scott MacArthur, Elsie Fisher, MacLaren Laing and Anne Dowd, narrated by Rob Reiner.
Credits: Directed by Stephanie Laing, scripted by Stephanie Laing and Brad Morris. A Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:30