My Big Fat Sassy Obituary, by James T. Sheridan
Carlo De Rosa’s new film Finding Joy tells the warm story of a family of eccentric characters in a strangely charming tale of love and loss. Kyle Livingston (Josh Cooke) effectively loses his friendships, home, car, and confidence in an efficient five minute introduction, and the author of “Portrait of a Frozen Family” retreats back to his childhood home to live with his father, his father’s new girlfriend, brother, sister-in-law, and niece. Except his bedroom has been converted into a bathroom. So, Kyle sleeps uncomfortably in the bathtub, staring at his laptop, while haunted by an impending deadline for his next book. He catches the eye of Joy (Liane Balaban), his attractive neighbor across the street who takes an interest in him that builds to an unusual request. She is dying and asks Kyle write a “classy, sassy obituary” for her. To get to know each other for the ostensible purpose of writing the obit, Joy takes Kyle on zany adventures volunteering with the seniors at the local retirement center, donating to the homeless, and having him wear a costume that represents her greatest fear. As he accompanies Joy and develops feelings for her, Kyle also begins thawing the ice at home with his grieving father and conflicted brother.
Finding Joy has a likeable air about it because of its genuine fondness for its characters and the world of this family. The great Lainie Kazan plays a makeshift matriarch with great lightness and affability (she was the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and Barry Bostwick has a gruff, leathery charm as Kyle’s agoraphobic dad (he was Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Shona Tuckman’s screenplay has some terrific lines, but try as it might, the collective pieces of the film never add up fully.
Josh Cooke has a reluctant leading man quality, always projecting an unsure quality, though I wanted to know more about his process of becoming a writer and his alienation from his family. Liane Balaban’s work as Joy has a bit of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, yet she simply is not in enough scenes nor given enough to do to make the final moments pay off like they should. Kyle’s writing motif fades in and out, and the dramatic tension between Kyle’s brother Marshall (Tyler Bunch) and his wife Patsy (Kiki Harris) misses the mark comedically. By attempting to make the film a portrait of a dysfunctional family, De Rosa obscures the central relationship of Kyle and Joy. And sometimes characters trying really hard to be wacky does not work. “Finding Joy” needs more of a focus on its lead characters connecting and less on the other family members. At times, the film recalls Little Miss Sunshine with its dramatic tone shifts and attempts to show how family members interact (it even mimics that film’s iconic car trouble). However, overall, Finding Joy has a charm in its small surprises and its tale of acceptance even if the film cannot sustain its many storylines.