Top 10 Dysfunctional Families in Movie Comedies

by Eric Melin on December 1, 2009

in Top 10s

Today’s kick-ass two-part list comes from indie filmmaker Trey Hock. I’ll let him explain:

When I suggested this list to Eric, I thought I was in for a simple and fun project. I knew I could think of a number of funny, awkward and weird families in films. Why not come up with film families who really put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional? As with most of the adventures I embark on, it quickly became a huge undertaking and I realized that I had bitten off more than a mouthful. There were just too many great screwed up fams, and it is hard to prioritize comedy over drama. So I went Golden Globes over Academy Awards, and present, for your enjoyment, a two-part Top 10. Part One is in the category of comedy, while Part Two’s drama/horror category will continue next week. Without further ado: The Top 10 Dysfunctional Families in Movie Comedies.

hunter cage raising arizona10. The McDunnoghs in “Raising Arizona” (1987) Dir. Joel Coen

You couldn’t have a more perfectly mismatched pair than H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Ed McDunnough (Holly Hunter). Not only do you have H.I.’s penchant for poorly planned petty theft and Ed’s adherence to the law as an Arizona state corrections officer, but you mix in the desperation of possible infertility, and off we go. H.I. hatches the plan to build a family by taking a baby from a local celebrity business man, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), and Ed caves in to her own yearning for a child. This of course is no way to make a stable loving situation, especially when pursued by a horrid post-apocalyptic vision of a bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb). It is one of the Coen Brothers’ more perfect funny films. Watch it and wish that your parents would reveal that you were procured through less natural means.

the fratellis the goonies 19859. The Fratellis in “The Goonies” (1985) Dir. Richard Donner

I have to give my wife, Jaime, credit for this one, but as soon as she mentioned them, I knew they were in. I mean, what kind of bank-robbing family locks their son/brother in a basement, and chases children through caves in search of pirate treasure? Only the Fratellis. These would-be criminals take sibling rivalry and bad mothering to a whole new level. Hopefully you’ve got your slick shoes, and an enormous Electric Company-loving giant on your side whenever you decide to take on the Fratellis.

the bakers sixteen candles 19848. The Bakers in “Sixteen Candles” (1984) Dir. John Hughes

Your sister is marrying a Bo hunk and all of your family is in town. Your grandparents take over your room and leave you with the couch. Grandma Helen takes notice of your perky developing breasts one morning, and goes so far as to cop a feel. Your younger brother is a jerk-off, and everyone has forgotten that it’s your sixteenth birthday. Life couldn’t get any worse, and thank God John Hughes put Molly Ringwald through all of this and gave us “Sixteen Candles.” Many forget that the film that gave us Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong and Anthony Michael Hall as Farmer Ted was really about a 16-year-old Samantha Baker dealing with her apparent invisibility, and her totally real and completely screwed up family. John Hughes, you may have lost me with “Baby’s Day Out,” but I will love you forever for “Sixteen Candles.”

the byrnes meet the parents 20007. The Byrnes in “Meet the Parents” (2000) Dir. Jay Roach

This movie makes me really uncomfortable. To this day, I have only sat through it once. I just have a lot of difficulty watching a sweet sincere guy get completely blown up by his in-laws. That said, this film takes the over-protective father (Robert De Niro) and gives him CIA cred and gadgets. It also takes what all of us are capable of when love and our own insecurities get the best of us and turns the volume way up. When Ben Stiller spray-painted the cat’s tail, I thought, “Well of course he’d do that. He’s in love with your daughter.” This film also made your in-laws’ toilet with the jiggly handle impossible to use.

the wieners welcome to the dollhouse 19956. The Wieners in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) Dir. Todd Solondz

When the best part of your day is having the bully at your school threaten to rape you, well something’s probably not going so well at home. This film is a beacon of light for those weirdos, fatties, or anyone who wore all the wrong things in middle school. Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is awkward perfection, and her brother Mark can offer no help as a nerd himself. He does let her know that high school is better, because at least kids aren’t as mean to your face. Missy, the youngest Wiener, is on her way to coolness and stands as a constant reminder of where her older siblings fall short. If your older sibling could have said something to make things better, but instead offered a dose of reality, you’ll know how Dawn feels.

kevin time bandits 19815. Kevin, his Mom and Dad in “Time Bandits” (1981) Dir. Terry Gilliam

All kids at some point wish they could escape into their fantasies, but only Kevin has parents who are so inept and self-absorbed that he is able to. Kevin’s parents care for little more than mindless evening game shows and new kitchen appliances. Because of this, Kevin is able to escape into a series of time holes with a band of dwarves. Kevin tries to make a new family with King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), but the dwarves save him and return him to his parents after a run-in with the most evil being in the universe. When Kevin finally gets home, he finds his house has burnt down and his parents haven’t noticed his absence at all. When his mother and father touch a chunk of pure evil pretending to be a roast, they explode, leaving Kevin alone on his front lawn. It’s not all sour grapes though. Most of the cast of Monty Python make appearances, and Ian Holm is really great as Napoleon.

harold and maude mother 19714. Harold and his mother in “Harold and Maude” (1971) Dir. Hal Ashby

I mean really how else should a young man build a loving relationship with his mother if not through fake suicide attempts? Harold (Bud Cort) and his mother really don’t see eye to eye, but Harold keeps trying to get her attention by pretending to kill himself. His methods include slitting his wrists, hanging, self-immolation, and seppuku among others. Mrs. Chasen has seen it all before and is completely nonplussed by the proceedings. She just wants Harold to get rid of his hearse, meet a nice young woman, and settle down, which Harold does. Sort of. Harold begins a friendship and romance with the 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). When his mother and uncle find out, they are less than pleased. There wasn’t much sincerity in “There’s Something About Mary,” but the Farrelly brothers were right about one thing: “Harold and Maude” is one of the best romances of all time.

bening cox running with scissors3. The Finches and the Burroughs in “Running with Scissors” (2006) Dir. Ryan Murphy

This is a story of from bad to weird. Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) is the son of an alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and mentally unstable mother (Annette Bening). He tries to be the glue which holds his family together, but when his parents divorce, he is abandoned to the Finch household. Run by eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), the Finch household is one that explores emotional and sexual desires to the point that new problems are created daily. This isn’t a great film on the whole, but it has some truly inspired moments. Anytime you see a father yelling at his daughter to get out of his “masterbatorium,” that’s time well spent as far as I’m concerned.

posey ryan henry fool 19972. The Grims in “Henry Fool” (1997) Dir. Hal Hartley

Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and his sister, Fay (Parker Posey), were living a perfectly forgettable life with their mother until Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) came along. Henry is a hilarious yet untalented author in pursuit of the next great American novel, and a little under-aged action. Simon befriends Henry, and in turn Henry encourages Simon to begin writing poetry. While Simon’s career as a poet takes off, Henry takes turns having sex with Simon’s sister and mother. This is a family of completely selfish individuals, who are turned in on themselves by this fast-talking outsider. Hal Hartley is a genius at crafting memorable dialogue, and this may be his masterpiece.

the life aquatic wilson murray1. Steve and Eleanor Zissou, Ned Plimpton in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) Dir. Wes Anderson

The current king of films with daddy issues, Wes Anderson gives us this dysfunctional tour de force. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) had no idea he even had a son until Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up, fully grown. Steve then proceeds to pursue the same woman as Ned, the stunning and pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). This all takes place on the confined space of Zissou’s oceanography vessel. Eleanor is the estranged wife of Steve and questions the legitimacy of the Ned’s claims to be Steve’s son. Glocs, interns, and pirates all play a part leading to Ned’s accidental death. I couldn’t think of another movie that mixed death, sex, pregnancy, illegitimate sons, estranged ex-wives, and Jeff Goldblum to such an extent. For this reason, “The Life Aquatic” gets number one.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ross McG December 1, 2009 at 6:17 am

ugh… that was the best you could do for number one? really? possibly the most boring two hours ive ever spent in a cinema.
the Tenenbaums could have been a better choice…
good shout on the Fratellis though – opera-singing, pizza-guzzling, toupee-wearing, jail-breaking brilliance.
Surely the Baudelaire family from A Series Of Unfortunate Events warranted a mention – inventor, book-reading genius, tooth-crunching baby, murderous and incest-attempting adoptive father, a giant snake-keeping uncle – if this bunch isnt dysfunctional i dont know what is.
makes the Zissous look like the Brady Bunch. although in fairness, the Brady Bunch are a fairly messed-up, uh, bunch. Hey! why arent the Brady Bunch on this list!!!???
okay, ill stop now.

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2 Reed December 1, 2009 at 7:43 am

Really well done, but I gotta agree with Ross on the #1 choice. I figured we were working our way up to the Tennenbaums. Margo alone gets them into the top five.

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3 steven g. December 1, 2009 at 11:16 am

I also agree, the Tennenbaums were waaaaay more dysfunctional then the Zissou’s. I am suprised I didn’t see the family represented in parenthood, though the film was cheezy, the entire point was to give a comedic spin tot he examination of the “modern” family in full dysfunctionalness!

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4 Jake December 1, 2009 at 11:35 am

I gotta agree with Ross & Reed. The Royal Tenenbaums should definitely be on there. What about the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation? Or the Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine? Other than that, pretty good list.

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5 Coos December 1, 2009 at 12:42 pm

The Tenenbaums totally beat out the Fratellis.

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6 Eric Melin December 1, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Wow, you guys are killing Trey for the Tenenbaums…and I have to say…I was thinking the same thing. BUT some of the other choices are quite inspired. This is a great list. I’m particularly happy to see the Wieners and The McDunnoghs on here (also, I applaud thinking outside the box to include “Time Bandits,” which has one of the best and most unexpected endings ever.). Next week’s drama/horror list has even more severe family weirdness.

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7 KNA December 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm

“Better Off Dead”

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8 Andrew DeGolyer December 1, 2009 at 2:54 pm

The Grizwalds? Really? Where are the Grizwalds?

Aside from that, great list. I love Raising Arizona.

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9 kt edmiston December 1, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I’m so happy you included the Wieners on here! As soon as I read the introduction to the list my fingers were antsy to defend them in the comments section had you left them off! I empathized so much with Dawn Wiener in middle school and always wanted the best for her. I was distraught to see her character come to an end in Palindromes. On that sidetracked note, Todd Solondz knows a lot about creating very dysfunctional characters and families.
I also don’t agree so much with the Tennenbaums being included on here. Though each of the characters in their own right had personal melodramas and neuroses, they were all able to come rely on the comforts of home and family. I love the scene where all their break downs individually lead them back to their childhood home to feel safe and nurtured.
Thanks for the list. You mentioned a few movies I haven’t seen that I’d like to check out.

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10 Xavier December 1, 2009 at 3:26 pm

How about the Goldmans from the Birdcage

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11 Matt December 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm

In a dose of holiday spirit, The Ref comes to mind.

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12 hellohawk December 1, 2009 at 4:53 pm

I totally forgot John Hughes did Baby’s Day Out–wow–talk about your low points! Awesome that you included “Sixteen Candles”, though.

I always do the thing where I hide the next entries while I am reading previous ones so I don’t lose the “surprise” factor–geeky I know, whatever. But when I got to number 2, I saw “Anderson” out of the corner of my eye in the #1 spot and I was like, “Oh, #1 is The Royal Tenenbaums”. I don’t know that I was disappointed that it wasn’t, though. I think all of Anderson’s films deal with family/friends/relationships fairly similarly. ALL of them certainly include dysfunctional families or relationships. So, hats off to Trey for not being too obvious…having said that, “Tenebaums” should have had it!

Also, it’s not a big part of the movie, but I always enjoyed the Hall family in “Annie Hall”. That scene with Christopher Walken is creepy comedy gold.

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13 TS December 1, 2009 at 4:57 pm

texas chainsaw massacre

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14 Trey December 1, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Ross, Reed, Steven, Jake and Coos,

hellohawk is on the right track with their critical approach to why the Zissous are more dysfunctional than the Tennebaums, though he bails at the end. kt also is with me on some of the real nurturing and resolution that all of the Tennebaums seek and end up getting. It wasn’t that I was trying to be less obvious, but I actually thought through the actual family dynamics. Sure the Tennebaums are screwed up, but there is real redemption, penance, and healing that comes, and with all of them mostly intact. When Royal dies of natural causes, all of his family attend his funeral, and we the viewers are at piece.

The Zissous on the other hand stay entirely unresolved and the arrogance and self-centeredness of Steve Zissou lead to his son’s death. Zissou competes with his son, Ned, for the affections of a pregnant woman. Steve Zissou at the end of Life Aquatic gets some resolution, but it comes at the expense of everyone around him, unlike with the Tennebaums, where Royal gets resolution because he changes for the better and helps his family to heal.

Now if what you are saying is that Tennebaums is a better film than Life Aquatic, well that I agree with.

Andrew,

The Griswolds are the most loving self-involved family ever. That’s what makes them so hilarious. It’s their naivety and innocent belief in all that is good, that makes them so easy to take advantage of. Clark daydreams of another beautiful woman, but we all know that he’ll never pursue it. He and his wife decide to make a sexy tape on a vacation in France even though they are the parents of two teen children. Both parents are goofy and dorks, but are also proud of their children. The more I think about it, the more awesome the Griswolds are. But, Andrew, I like you love these movies.

Matt,

I’ve never seen the Ref. Is it good? Am I missing out on dysfunctional awesomeness?

Xavier,

The Goldmans are pretty non-trad, but I think they are just too loving to make the list.

KNA,

I love Better Off Dead. I must watch it again soon.

TS,

This is the comedy list, but you’ve got good instincts.

hellohawk,

Anytime you get the chance to mention Annie Hall, you should.

Thank you all for the comments, and please keep them coming. I love the fact that you all put so much thought into the films you’ve seen and love.

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15 Xavier December 1, 2009 at 9:47 pm

I didn’t mean they should make the list the 10 on yours are probably better, they’re more functionally dysfunctional

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16 Xavier December 1, 2009 at 9:48 pm

the goldmans that is

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17 Andrew DeGolyer December 3, 2009 at 2:25 am

I forgot to thank you for putting H.I and Ed on the list. My grandma bought us that movie years ago because the cashier said it was a family friendly movie. I still laugh so hard that it hurts every time I watch that movie. So, thank you.

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18 Shaun December 7, 2009 at 11:31 am

Good list Trey. And yes – you MUST see The Ref. Other than the too-tidy ending, it’s a wonderful film. And plenty disfunctional.

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19 Lisa December 26, 2009 at 12:09 am

I loved this list. I also want to thank you for the Raising Arizona nod. I fell in love with the Coen Brothers’ movies after seeing RA.

Harold and Maude is also amazing.

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20 Megan December 30, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Igby Goes Down? That movie is Family Dysfunction R’Us.

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