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The Talent Given Us

(2005) * 1/2 Unrated
97 min. Vitagraph Films. Director: Andrew Wagner. Cast: Judy Wagner, Allen Wagner, Emily Wagner, Maggie Wagner, Judy Dixon.

The Talent Given Us could just as well have been called "Cross Words." Crossword puzzles are the only activity Judy and Allen Wagner can agree to do together, and arguments are the bread and butter of the Wagner family dynamic. Daughters Maggie and Emily bicker over who suffers more, and son Andrew dodges everyone's calls. When Mom demands a road trip from Manhattan to L.A. to find the estranged Andrew, the dirty laundry begins to pile up.

So here's the thing: Andrew Wagner is the writer-director, and he's cast his real family in all of the roles. Though Wagner insists it's all scripted fiction, he's being coy: the gimmick is semi-documentary, and without it, no one would give a rat's patoot about the The Talent Given Us. It's a stagy home movie for the "reality" era, and while I'm glad Wagner could bond with his family, I don't need or want to watch his family's therapeutic exercises.

The Wagners get off some Woody Allen-esque one-liners ("I'm not in therapy five days a week because you're a good mother," grouses Emily) and a couple of semi-convincing poignant moments regarding Judy's escape attempt from her damaged marriage. But variable acting and shrill humor are the predictable results of Wagner's navel-gazing approach. In an emotionally claustrophobic nightmare, Allen's gravelly, near-incoherent muttering (with a straw ever-dangling from his lips) forms the most bearable, least self-conscious performance.

When Judy says, "Alan, I want you to fuck me," he replies, "Wake me in an hour." The moment carries comic shock value, but what's shocking isn't so much how Judy expresses herself as the knowledge that her son penned the suspiciously punchy line for her. New-Age-y attempts to compensate for what Andrew calls "the fear that stops us" pass through a Bruce Joel Rubin meditation class (Rubin wrote Ghost and Jacob's Ladder in the '90s) on the way to a warm reconciliation.

What starts out seeming courageous rapidly reveals itself as a narcissistic, opportunistic stunt. And yet I don't know whether to flog Wagner or shake the entrepeneur's hand. Noting the unsatiable hunger for "reality" programming, the writer-director went selling, and InDigEnt came buying: after years accumulating no less than six unproduced screenplays, Wagner finally has a deal to adapt a novel and direct it as his sophomore effort. One can only hope that The Talent Given Us—Wagner's self-distributed meal-ticket movie—will lead to more interesting efforts.

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