Dark comedy is very hard to pull off.
If you want to know how hard, watch "Thanksgiving Day" at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2).
The film starts off by missing the right tone and never comes near finding it. The problems are many. One of the biggest is Chicago disc jockey Jonathon Brandmeier, for whom this film is meant in part to be a showcase. Mainly it showcases his deficiencies as a comic actor.
"Thanksgiving Day" is about a dysfunctional family that gathers in its suburban Detroit home for the traditional holiday dinner. Max Schloss (Tony Curtis) is the patriarch; he made a fortune manufacturing rubber gloves for industry. Paula, the matriarch, is played by Mary Tyler Moore. Brandmeier plays Randy, the oldest son and Curtis' daughter, Kelly, plays Barbara, the Schloss' daughter. The gimmick is that Max drops dead while carving the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. He dies with his face buried in the bird.
The rest of the film is about the family's downward financial spiral, as Randy tries to run the business, and then its resurgence, thanks to a wild scheme to start a fish farm. It is not funny -- just stupid.
Brandmeier has one move as an actor -- looking stupid. It's a nice reaction move the first time he uses it, but after that five seconds goes by, what fills the rest of the two hours?
Maybe the producers thought Mary Tyler Moore would pick up the ball. But there are two Mary Tyler Moores -- the one who is great (as in last week's "Last, Best Year of My Life") and the one who gets tight and overacts terribly when she senses she is in a turkey, as she does here. Mary Tyler Moore is almost a bad parody of herself in this film. It is not pleasant to watch someone as gifted as her stumble around this way.
How bad does this film get?
Sonny Bono and Morton Downey Jr. have roles in it. And next to Brandmeier, they seem like major acting talent.