American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Passed Away" is one of those movies that introduces a family filled with troubled people, brings them all together at a funeral and solves their dilemmas, while also trying desperately to be funny and heartwarming. If you can believe the troubles in this movie, you may never have known real trouble, and I envy you. Those who have dealt with divorce, adultery, unplanned pregnancy, ungrateful children and the power struggles within labor unions might be forgiven, however, for finding "Passed Away" a shade facile.
The movie begins with the death, shortly after the opening credits, of old Jack, the beloved patriarch of the Scanlan family (Jack Warden). His brood gathers for an Irish wake, to be held at the house. There is his son Johnny (Bob Hoskins), whose mother says, "You're the oldest now," to which he replies, "I always was the oldest." Johnny, a tree surgeon, is married to Amy (Blair Brown) and has assorted children with troubles of their own. His brother Frank (William Petersen) is a labor official. The older sister, played by Pamela Reed, is a dancer whose marriage to a gay man (Tim Curry) ended in divorce, although she hasn't told anyone. Another sister, played by Frances McDormand, was once a cloistered nun but is now an activist nun, working in Latin America. She brings a political refugee to the funeral.
There are other characters. A lot of other characters, including Maureen Stapleton as the mother, Nancy Travis as a mysterious woman in black who may or may not have been the late Jack Scanlan's mistress, Peter Riegert as the local embalmer who was once in love with Terry (Pamela Reed) and assorted aunts, priests, neighborhood brats and others. The over-all effect is something like Ron Howard's "Parenthood" (1989), but somehow while that film purred along smoothly, "Passed Away" keeps looking like a traffic jam.
One difficulty is that most of the characters are barely introduced before - whammo! - their problems are explained. They should wear name tags (Hi! I'm Johnny, and I'm in mid-life crisis).