Published September 1, 1997
The House of Yes, directed by Mark Waters and adapted by him from the stage play by Wendy MacLeod is enough to make you feel sorry for the Kennedys. Its occasional flashes of wit and its more persistent intellectual superciliousness have no other point than redundantly to assert that somehow (the means can be left to psychologists) celebrity and money and aristocracy and madness and kinky sex and murder and poisonous families all go together. Imagine something like this a hundred years ago. If this had been played upon a stage then, the world would have condemned it as an improbable fiction. But now that short list of things we call “real” affords a place for the wildly improbable to become not only the plausible but, indeed, the certainly true.
Marty Pascal (Josh Hamilton) comes home from New York to his family’s estate in suburban Virginia for Thanksgiving, 1983, bringing with him his fiancée, Lesly (Tori Spelling) a rather dim but “sincere” girl from Pennsylvania who works in a doughnut shop in New York. The estate is said to abut that of Ethel Kennedy in Maclean. Marty’s family, however, are the anti-Kennedys. His father disappeared on the day that John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Marty’s sister, known only as Jackie-O (Parker Posey), insists that their mother (Genevieve Bujold) in fact killed their father that day—to prevent him from leaving— and buried his body in the back yard. But Jackie-O is mentally ill. She is obsessed with acting the part of Jackie Kennedy, even to the point of buying an identical pink chenille suit and pillbox hat to the one Jackie wore in Dallas, and smearing ketchup and macaroni (to simulate brains) down the front of it.
She is on heavy medication after having shot Marty some years before—because they, brother and sister, had had a sexual relationship and she was fiercely possessive. You can imagine what she thinks of Lesly. Also present in the household is Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who feels shut out by the closeness of his two siblings and immediately falls for Lesly too. The family all talk to each other and to Lesly with a mixture of Pinterian obtuseness and a very mannered, literary cleverness. The two do not mix well together on the silver screen. Jackie-O apologizes to Marty, for instance, for having shot him. “I didn’t mean to maim you. I only meant to kill you.” Then she reproaches him for bringing home Lesly, since, as she says, she “went to a lot of trouble to get sane” for him. “A person gets her heart set on a certain thing—a person doesn’t get a certain thing, she goes insane.” She turns to Lesly: “You don’t think I’m insane?”
“No. You’re just spoiled.”
“Oh, please. If we’re going to start telling the truth, I’m going to bed.” Likewise, when Anthony accuses his siblings’ heavy-handedly ironic display of “familial concern” of being only “playing the familiar concern game,” Jackie-O says: “Don’t be so sincere, Anthony. It’s declassé.”
Marty explains his love for Lesly by saying that he wants to be normal, but mother proves to be right when she tells him, “It’s a little late for that.” When the power goes off in a storm and mother finds she can’t cook the Thanksgiving dinner, a series of increasingly bizarre events occur, involving sexual jealousy, sexual revenge, the strategic revelation of shocking secrets and the Kennedys are dragged in again for parody assassinations with a real gun and ammunition that may or may not be live. It’s a lot of trouble to go to just to prove that families are toxic, but at least the black comedy is not very funny.