A dysfunction pair of brothers work through their familial issues on a road trip unlike any other in Manson Family Vacation.
Let’s bitch it out…
Arguably Jay Duplass is less well known than his brother, Mark. If you’re familiar with the comedy stylings of one, though, then you likely have an idea of what to expect from this film. This is an off-beat comedy about a pair of brothers who aren’t exactly close. There’s friction between the younger straight-laced lawyer, Nick (Duplass) and his older artist brother Conrad (Linas Phillips), who was adopted. Part of the conflict is the result of unresolved issues in the wake of their father’s death (Conrad did not attend the funeral and left Nick to plan everything), as well as baggage from their childhood (Conrad believes that Nick and their father were mean to him and did not love him).
There’s a lot to unpack, but Manson Family Vacation wisely takes its time pulling out all of these threads. The story begins when Nick receives word out of the blue that Conrad is coming for an impromptu visit. Nick is mildly put off by this, but his wife Amanda (Leonora Pitts) is optimistic about the opportunity to get to know Conrad better. It very quickly becomes clear that the brotherly dynamic is playful, but slightly off: they don’t know how to talk to one another and frequently joke instead of saying what they really mean. The fact that Conrad immediately makes friends with Nick’s seven year old son, Max (Adam Chernick), doesn’t help since Nick has a fraught relationship with him.
It turns out that Conrad is passing through on his way to an environmental job in the desert and he wants to spend a few days with his brother touring the infamous Manson murder sites before his job starts (hence the name of the film). Nick is unsettled, but the comedic stylings of the film and the way that Phillips plays Conrad makes this far less creepy than it reads. If anything, Conrad seems like man-child who has become a little too fixated on the true crime details. With Amanda’s prodding, Nick sets off with Conrad to visit various murder sites; their conversations alternating between family issues and details of the Manson murder spree with humour pervading the proceedings as they encounter all kinds of amusing situations.
Both leads do well with their roles – this is hardly a stretch for Duplass, and Phillips feels like a breath of fresh air. They work well off each other, even as the film takes on a darker note as they head into the desert and towards the climax. Viewers who pay attention to Conrad and listen to the real life interview with Manson that opens the film shouldn’t have a problem figuring out where the road trip is headed and why (though many of the audience members in my theatre openly gasped when the truth was revealed). The darker, less comedic final section featuring Blackbird (genre vet Tobin Bell) as another Manson enthusiast struggles with tone and takes a little too long to play out, but the strong lead performances and snappy editing make Manson Family Vacation a solid effort and well-worth a look.
Bottom Line: Part of Netflix’s next stage of world domination, Manson Family Vacation is an amusing comedy that fits well within the Duplass brothers oeuvre, features good performances and an offbeat narrative that gives it an edge over other milquetoast comedies. It’s a shame that the title will likely scare off a bunch of folks who mistake it for something else.
Manson Family Vacation will be released on October 27 by Netflix