A slight twist on a familiar story makes this fast paced brother dramedy fresh and entertaining.
Manson Family Vacation
Charles Manson is probably the last person you’d expect a Duplass Brothers Production to feature a story around. While the title suggests that the famous cult leader (or his “family”) may be the main focal point, writer and director J. Davis simply uses him as the glue that holds together the misadventures of two out of touch brothers. And turns out this vacation is a lot more fun and less scary than it sounds.
This sibling story has a familiar setup, one that’s not far off from the Duplass brothers film Jeff, Who Lives At Home; Nick (Jay Duplass) is an uptight successful lawyer with a wife and kid, while his brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) is a long-haired, easygoing slacker. They haven’t spoken with each other since Nick’s wedding day and because Conrad has always been the black sheep of the family, he didn’t even attend their father’s funeral. Which makes it all the more surprising when Conrad decides to show up unexpectedly at Nick’s doorstep.
Nick and his wife don’t bat an eye when Conrad informs them he just quit his job and sold off of his possesses to start working for a non-profit environmental organization. It sounds exactly like what the free-spirited brother would do. Nick is more concerned that his brother has decided to give up on his dreams of becoming an artist, not that it’s much of a surprise, but it was the only thing Conrad ever stuck with until now.
While in town for just a few days, Conrad reveals his latest obsession, Charles Manson. This new craze baffles Nick, who didn’t notice his brother wearing a Manson t-shirt or carrying around a copy of “Helter Skelter.” Or that Conrad looks eerily similar to Manson with his long parted hair and full beard. Yet despite these realizations, Conrad still manages to convince his brother (with a disturbing amount of giddiness) to tour around to a bunch of Mason Family sites.
What starts as a sneaky journey into the former home of the LaBianca’s, ends in a wild goose chase from various “clues” uncovered along the way. The film works best when the two brothers are busy working on a mission. But when the action subsides between chases and the characters are forced to mingle, the dialog can feel a bit dry and unnatural.
Throughout Manson Family Vacation, Davis uses clips of old interview footage of Charles Manson for transitions between scenes. At first these seem to be shown to tie Manson into the story and to give quick background information for anyone unfamiliar with the cult leader. But as the film progresses you begin to realize just how relevant the clips are to what’s happening onscreen. For example, when Manson blames lack of parenting for how he acts, you can’t help but wonder if the same holds true for Conrad.
There are times when this feels like an early Duplass brothers film, especially considering the sibling dynamic story. After all, they are masters of the subject with films like The Puffy Chair (my personal favorite), The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Jeff…, and more recently with their HBO show Togetherness. The film even has a Duplass look to it, filled with constant camera movements (though there are no quick zooms). However, a key missing quality is an improvised script. Manson Family Vacation may have benefited from having a loosened structure and organic dialog.
Up until the end, Manson Family Vacation plays out like a lot of other estranged brothers stories we’ve seen many times in other indie films. But Davis adds a slight twist (don’t think too hard, it’s not that difficult to predict) to make the whole thing feel fresh and entertaining. Phillips is the perfect choice for the role, especially with his unkempt look and easy to forgive personality, you find yourself rooting from him even during his sketchiest of moments. It’s nice to see the other Duplass brother spend more time in front of the camera, even if Jay doesn’t quite have the effortless quality of his brother Mark. There may be a few missteps along the way, but the fast pace of Manson Family Vacation keeps everything moving towards its satisfying conclusion.
Manson Family Vacation will be available on iTunes & Digital VOD on October 6th, 2015 and arriving to Netflix on October 27th, 2015.