‘The Estate’ Review: Money Makes Everything Worse in This All-Star Black Comedy

Tale of voracious would-be heirs lacks the courage to commit to its own nastiness

The Estate
Alyssa Moran/Signature

The sweet animated opening credits sequence of Dean Craig’s “The Estate” introduces two nice sisters who run a café. It’s a classic misdirect: a warm overview of sweet, caring Macey and sharp, smart Savanna under the guidance of their father, running a neighborhood joint replete with hot coffee and cozy regulars. Once the credits fade to real life, as it were, we learn that the sisters are in over their head and way behind on their payments, with no feasible financial solution in sight.

The Macey and Savanna of the cartoon prologue do not resemble the Macey and Savanna of “The Estate.” Macey (Toni Collette) is vaguely empathetic but weak-willed. Savanna (Anna Faris) is impulsive and possibly a sociopath. In order to save their precious café, one the audience never actually sees them working in, they’re going to have to butter up their dying, miserable Aunt Hildy (Kathleen Turner), who is rumored to possess a small fortune.

If only it were all that simple. Macey and Savanna aren’t the only extended family members to show up outside of Aunt Hildy’s mansion. There’s uptight cousin Beatrice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and get-along restaurateur husband James (DeWitt’s real-life husband Ron Livingston). There’s also pervy cousin Dick (David Duchovny) who has always had the hots for Macey (again, his cousin) as well as for any other breathing woman. Together these craven cousins take over Aunt Hildy’s estate, waiting on her hand and foot, emptying colostomy bags and entertaining a woman who has long wished herself dead.

“The Estate” walks a funny line, neither overwhelmingly “ha-ha” funny nor particularly sharp, relying too much on both gross-out body humor and early 2000s-style sexual comedy, making a punchline of sexual assault and incest. It would be one thing if the film was fully committed to its nastiness — a type of comedy we don’t see much of these days at all — but “The Estate” is too often hampered by its own self-awareness. Every eight to 10 minutes, Macey steps back from the action to deliver a semi-panicked, “Guys, what are any of us doing here?” or to question whether the group’s actions are really worth it. No, “The Estate” says over and over again, these actions are never really worth it, no matter how many millions of dollars are at stake.

Though the cousins are hellbent on sabotaging each other for the death-day payout from Aunt Hildy, none of them are as acidic as their elder. As Hildy, Turner is mean-spirited and ruthless, making her hapless nieces and nephews look like full-blown morons. She’s having the most fun in her role, in part because no one in the film can keep up with her. Only she and the audience realize that none of these people deserve her fortune.

DeWitt and Duchovny are quite funny, and even game, as well; the former plays an uptight New Yorker with savage aplomb, and the latter goes for tracksuit-lazy lustfulness. For them, “The Estate” feels like an amusement park, a chance to show off all they can handle.

It’s Collette and Faris who feel like the weak links in their own vehicle. Colette, though wildly talented, is out of her depth in this comedy, forced to play the straight woman to no one’s delight. Faris, on the other hand, is too big and unrestrained. How did these two ever run a business?

Eventually, “The Estate” takes on something of a plot wherein Aunt Hildy reveals that she would like, at last, to fall in love before she leaves the Earth. She nominates an old high school crush, whom Macey and Savanna seek out. He’s got a dark past of his own, and the contrived romance (both in the film and in watching the film) feels like one too many chaotic elements in an already messy movie. It’s not long before “The Estate” dovetails into full-blown nihilism, the audience left wondering — as Macey has said time and time again in the film — what any of us are doing here.

“Eat the rich” comedies have been popular far longer than our short attention spans can remember, with the initial draw of a show like “Arrested Development” being the craven, foolish narcissism of the Bluth family children out to gain their fortune back. “The Estate” looks beyond the awfulness of the haves in favor of taking dull stabs at the have-nots and their desperation. That Macey and Savanna are the punchline of their own faux-altruistic selfishness doesn’t feel like anything new. Like a lot of the money out there, it’s old and stale.

“The Estate” opens in US theaters Nov. 4 via Signature Entertainment.