IT’S BEEN 17 YEARS since “Ordinary People.” Nearly 20 since “Interiors.” Everyone who’s been panting after a movie about emotionally straitjacketed WASP families can breathe easy again. The characters in Bart Freundlich’s “The Myth of Fingerprints” are so frozen they’re practically a new snack treat: WASPsicles, now in your grocer’s freezer. These people are so cold they seem to change the weather. This family reunion story takes place over a frigid Thanksgiving weekend in New England. I don’t know where Bart Freundlich is from, but as a lifelong New Englander, I can assure him you don’t find lakes completely frozen over in November.
It’s a symbol of stasis and inability to communicate and silent suffering, don’t you know, like the dead turkey that father Roy Scheider buys and blasts with his shotgun to make his family believe he bagged it, or the title of the novel his daughter Julianne Moore settles down to while away the weekend with, “The Screaming of the Rabbits.” If you see it in the right mood, “The Myth of Fingerprints” can be quite the giggle inducer. When her train pulls into the station, Moore’s Mia is visible in the window, humping her nerdy therapist boyfriend Elliot (Brian Kerwin). Mia’s brother Jake (Michael Vartan) stops on the drive home for a roadside boff with his girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). That night, snug in the various guest rooms of their parents’ country-style home, they start all over again and their noise gets Mom (Blythe Danner) and Dad going at it. Not even a half-hour into the movie and nearly everyone’s been stuffed but the turkey.
Like all family get-together dramas, “The Myth of Fingerprints” is about secrets and long-buried resentments coming out in the open. But because this is about WASPs, those hidden emotions come out ever so discreetly. You listen to the people here arguing about things like the proper amount of mustard to use in food (I swear to God) and it’s just chatter, like lousy music drifting into your windows from a neighbor’s house. There’s no sense of how these petty annoyances portend a storm, the way that the miser father’s fretting over the diminishing level of his whiskey bottle in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” does. The big secret finally comes, and it’s a yawner. It’s revealed that Warren (Noah Wyle), who hasn’t been home since breaking up with his girlfriend Daphne (Arija Bareikis), oversaw his father making a drunken pass at her (she rebuffed him). That’s the kind of problem you’d think could be easily settled by a talk with Daphne and a swing at the old man. Instead it propels Warren into the icy wasteland of guilt and buried anger that the rest of his family inhabits.
With the exception of Scheider, who glowers through the role as if he thought he was doing Strindberg (or at least a Milk of Magnesia commercial), it’s hard to fault the cast. What hinders them is that the roles, as conceived by writer-director Freundlich, are such clichis. Wyle is very appealing, but it doesn’t do much for an actor to spend an entire movie pensive and wounded. As Daphne, Bareikis has a fresh, open face that’s like a little glint of real sunshine. Laurel Hollman as the jock daughter Leigh is loose enough, but she never gets to make good on the dirty glint that comes into her eyes whenever Kerwin’s Elliot walks into the room (though he is amusingly befuddled). There may be no more thankless role than the damaged loner, though as the young man whose crush on Mia is rekindled when he sees her, James LeGros (he was Matt Dillon’s drug buddy in “Drugstore Cowboy” and Diane Lane’s grungy paramour in “My New Gun”) brings his customary sneaker-soft generosity. There may be no young actor who is as yielding and solicitous of the women he shares screen time with. If someone were to put that quality into a romantic comedy, LeGros could really bloom.
Moore gets the worst of it. Mia, an artist who works as a gallery receptionist, is essentially a composite of the Mary Beth Hurt and Diane Keaton roles in “Interiors”: the intelligent daughter who can’t find a satisfactory way to express herself creatively and the one who can’t keep from using her sharp, cutting anger to lash out at the people around her. Moore is a startlingly intelligent actress. She has a way of narrowing her eyes that makes it appear as if she has distanced herself from her surroundings at the same time as she is coolly appraising everything in her line of vision. But Mia is a strident drag of a role. Her reluctance to soften suggests an actor not unwilling to play unlikable, but she’s stuck here in a conception, not a part. As her mother, Danner makes the cleanest getaway. If you stuck feathers in her hair and forced her to stand on one foot while reciting Edward Lear nonsense verse, Danner couldn’t help but seem like a real person. She’s good in every scene she has, whether she’s seducing her husband or breaking into an admiring grin when Davis informs her she wants to sleep with her son. And she has one terrific moment, explaining to Moore that life with Scheider hasn’t always been easy, but she’s never doubted her love for him. In the midst of Freundlich’s contrivance, Danner is blessedly natural.
“The Myth of Fingerprints,” with its sensitive acoustic music and finicky composed shots of wintry landscapes and relentlessly subdued tone, is a reminder of the problem identified by Pauline Kael in her reviews of “Interiors” and “Ordinary People”: Movies about WASP repression invariably wind up aping the tidy, stultified lives they’re meant to reveal. “The Myth of Fingerprints” is only 90 minutes long, but watching all this tasteful torment, you can’t help thinking that if you were watching a Jewish family or an Italian one, the air would be cleared — and you’d be out of the theater — a hell of a lot quicker.