Lately it seems as if forced quirkiness has become an unavoidable symptom of our indie films, with the family of characters being perhaps the most common and convenient setup (see Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, et al). So despite certain bright lights in Peep World's cast, I was wary of it from the start. The ensemble comedy centers on a family dinner that suffers under a mountain of tension in the wake of the success of the youngest son's tell-all memoir. The eponymous book mostly serves to air out the dirty laundry of all of its author's siblings: Jack, "the responsible one" (Michael C. Hall); Joel, "the fuck-up" (Rainn Wilson); and Cheri, a love-desperate neurotic (Sarah Silverman). Rounding out the cast are Ron Rifkin and Leslie Ann Warren as the parents of the clan, Judy Greer as Jack's wife Laura, Taraji P. Henson as Joel's girlfriend Mary, Ben Schwartz as Nathan, the youngest sibling and author of the controversial novel, and Kate Mara as his assistant.
With such a formidable cast, the film is mostly a showcase for its characters. Unfortunately, in this case the writing doesn't quite live up to the acting. For a comedy that's actually a tragedy of a highly dysfunctional family, the Peep World script doesn't create nearly enough of a history. The film is short, which would be fine (welcome, even) if not for the fact that it feels even shorter. There's something essential missing and, as a result, the emotional climaxes don't have much impact. We don't have enough time to settle into any of the siblings, let alone invest in them, and so, their epiphanies feel unearned.
The actors can't be faulted; they manage to create moments that are both hilarious and deeply touching, even without much to start with on paper. It may seem redundant to even mention it, but Michael C. Hall is just so good. Among the entire cast, he comes the closest to sparking actual empathy from the audience. One of the most effective scenes is when Jack has a quick phone conversation with the extravagant restaurant that's hosting his father's big birthday dinner—right after he's discovered that his own business has gone bankrupt and his few employees have abandoned him.
It's a pleasure to see Judy Greer playing against her stock rom-com quirky best friend role, and she and Hall are truly wonderful together. Taraji P. Henson is also, as always, one of the brighter lights among the cast, making the most of her small but hilarious role as Joel's understandably disoriented girlfriend. I would not have thought to pair her with Rainn Wilson, but they're ridiculously fun to watch together. Though she's never quite won my heart as a comedienne, even I couldn't take my eyes off of Sarah Silverman, and Ben Schwartz's Nathan faces a seemingly out of place, extreme situation with a fearless physical comedy that's equally unexpected. The only misfire in the casting is in Lewis Black as the film's narrator. His voice and delivery are certainly funny but they're also distracting, and even if that's the point of his voiceover, it still detracts from the film.
To the credit of Peep World, I certainly left the theater wanting more, but that's only because, despite its terrific performances, I was still ultimately left dissatisfied.