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By Phil Hall | February 9, 2005

The plays of Anton Chekhov have curiously failed to find a successful adaptation into cinema. Perhaps Chekhov’s work is so heavily theatrical (or just damn heavy) that a smooth film interpretation is impossible to achieve.

A Philadelphia-based filmmaker working as V. Ulea has taken a very different approach to Chekhov: simultaneously combining four plays (“The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Sea Gull” and “Three Sisters”), performing them like comedies, and staging them all in a modern furniture store.

This weird endeavor is called “Four Funny Families” and the title is two-thirds correct. There are four families featured here, but none of them are particularly funny. In fact, the only vaguely amusing aspect of this production is how painfully awful it is – rarely has an independently produced feature taken such an important source and screwed it up so dreadfully.

The kindest comment one can make on “Four Funny Families” is about the film’s staggering level of incoherence. The movie pinballs between different sections of the furniture store (“Meanwhile, in the ˜Uncle Vanya’ section…) as abridged versions of the Chekhov work play out with amateurish actors mangling the powerful text of the classic Russian plays. Not only does the genius of Chekhov get reduced to utter nonsense, but even worse the clumsy actors keep getting in the way of the genuinely attractive furniture around them. And you know something is very wrong when more attention is being given to a sofa than to the actors sitting on the furniture.

In this film, all of Chekhov’s characters live in the furniture store. Perhaps this concept can be spun out into new directions. How about simultaneously staging the collected works of Arthur Miller in a 24-hour supermarket? Or maybe having all of Harold Pinter’s plays running at once in a health club? Or maybe producing the entire Shakespeare canon in a McDonald’s?

Or even better…how about making a good film based on one Chekhov play. Any takers?

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