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Better Housekeeping


Better Housekeeping

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Anyone averse to movies that mock the poor should steer clear of Better Housekeeping, the raw feature debut of writer-director Frank Novak and his producer brother Jay (who make movies and operate the retro-fetishizing Modernica Furniture company). Better Housekeeping isn't a gentle, Jeff Foxworthy-esque spoof of the working class, and it isn't one of the Coen brothers' broad "hayseed" comedies, either. It's a keenly, meanly precise mockery of the kind of folks who end up shirtless and drunk on COPS, so wrapped up in their domestic squabbles that they can't see how they must look to outsiders. So, perhaps presumptuously, Frank Novak shows them. Bob Jay Mills plays a rare-toy dealer who's in the midst of divorcing Petra Westen, his wife and the mother of his 10-year-old son. Meanwhile, the family resides under one patchy roof, with frequent visits from Mills' drug-addicted brother and a pack of loutish drinking buddies. After Westen begins inviting over her upper-middle-class lesbian lover Tacey Adams, Mills builds a wall in the middle of the house, leaving a crawlspace for their son to pass through and for Adams to poke her head into to play peacemaker. Novak has a terrific sense of comic staging and timing (aided by the documentary-like cinematography of Alex Vendler), and the absurdity of holding important conversations through a dog door only scratches the surface of Better Housekeeping's funny ideas. Novak has a good ear for redneck-speak, too, from Mills answering Westen's legal accusations by shouting "I got way worser stuff to tell about you," to him trying to impress the police by insisting that what he wants is "some reassemblance of normalicity." The central joke of Better Housekeeping is that this couple will remain riotously uncivilized, in spite of Adams' well-meaning attempts to play social worker. But while inspired setpieces pop up throughout—and though Novak develops a sharp recurring theme about his characters' need for official legal adjudication—the movie's gaudy milieu ultimately becomes exhausting. The exaggerated white-trash environment and the naturalistic style mix poorly over time, giving off a stale odor that's funny in more ways than one.