The short version of this story is that Miranda Bailey's feature debut You Can Choose Your Family isn't very good, but it could've been. The central conceit of Glen Lakin's script – that an ostensibly normal, somewhat bored suburban dad (Jim Gaffigan) shares time with two separate familial units without them knowing about each other's existences – is pulled straight out of a lost Maury Povich episode.
Wisely, Bailey cast loveable, chubby, Hot Pockets aficionado Gaffigan as the deceptive patriarch, humanizing what could've been an otherwise dark and sinister role with the comedian's distinct brand of deadpan aloofness. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is presented as simply a series of escalating calamities, shot with an eye for sitcom staging that's essentially only missing a laugh track.
It's a shame, because Gaffigan and the rest of the cast – which includes Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), Samantha Mathis (The Strain), Alex Karpovsky (Girls), and Logan Miller (The Walking Dead) – are all having a ton of fun bouncing off one another in these multiple awkward scenarios. Gunn brings a heartbreaking sense of reality to her neglected housewife, who just wishes her husband would get to know their musician son (Miller) a little better.
Mathis plays Gunn’s polar opposite – the wife that Gaffigan's duplicitous dad obviously likes to spend more time with. For her, the showers of affection are more than enough, and the kids in that family – a football star (Gage Polchlopek) and free spirit (Isabelle Phillips) – seem to represent what their papa always wanted, but could never get from his other brood (which is rounded out by Emerson Tate Alexander's wisecracking red headed nerd). Could this be a result of his parenting choices, which are totally different with each set of offspring? Could be, but the movie never stops giggling long enough to consider this weighty subtext.
You Can Choose Your Family seeds some pretty fertile ground for astute character study, but is instead played like a zany buddy comedy, as Miller's suspicious son discovers the second family, and then begins blackmailing his dad in order to keep the secret safe. The kid wants tuition to go to NYU – where, unbeknownst to him, his newly uncovered half-sister has also been accepted to study – and his harried father will dutifully pay so that he can continue living his separate lives (meanwhile, Karpovsky steals the whole show as their stoned accomplice). When the explanation for both units comes, it admittedly makes sense in a morally twisted way, and life continues as usual.
Of course, normalcy would just end the picture, and a series of narrative circumstances put both tribes on a collision course for a chance encounter, which results in maximum Gaffigan exasperation (not to mention sweating). It's all mostly exhausting, as your brain is begging for anything engaging on an intellectual level. Instead, Bailey’s movie continues to chug on through its middle-brow nonsense, hitting plot points and jokes at an impressively rapid pace.
Weirdest yet is the period setting – the early '90s, at the beginnings of grunge – which really seems to provide little more than point and nod fashion and music references (a Color Me Badd needle drop is particularly egregious). As a producer, Bailey proved in the past that she put her name on projects that showcased rather talented comedic ensembles (such as Don't Think Twice) that still interrogated the characters regarding the moral choices they were making. That is not the case here.
You Can Choose Your Family ends on a note that's logical, yet still rings false due to its ramifications on the central relationship between Gaffigan and Miller's characters, lessons learned with a wink that are sure to frustrate anyone who just sat through two hours (yes, the movie is overlong to boot) with this rather silly trifle. A total bummer, as everyone involved is insanely talented, putting elbow grease into a rather substandard comedy that you're probably sure to see streaming on Netflix in the near future, only to forget you watched it a few hours later.