No question, some 80s movies do not stand the tests of time and memory. Risky Business. Mannequin. Anything starring Steve Guttenberg. But others that you probably remember as being distinctly average will surprise you by how classy they actually are, and Parenthood is a classic example of that.

By rights, this should be a 90minute slushfest, an insufferable pile of sentimental nonsense telling audiences how important family is, how cute kids are and how wild and zany Steve Martin is. And, to a degree, it is, but it is also much smarter and funnier than that and that is down to its blue chip cast and crew.

Parenthood was written by the memorably named and once seemingly ubiquitous writing duo, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, two men who have made a career out of whipping up clever little somethings out of what looks like nothing. Ganz had worked on excellent TV shows such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and, with Ganz, he managed to write a screenplay about a mermaid that became a huge hit (Splash!, another 80s film I personally don’t feel stands up to much) and Spies Like Us. The two would later become even better known for 90s classics like City Slickers and A League of Their Own, but Parenthood was the first movie that they wrote which, I feel, really showed how they could shine. Along with Ron Howard, the perfect director for this vehicle, they keep each element perfectly balanced so that even though there are four main plotlines in the film, and several others shooting off of each of those, nothing ever feels confused or rushed or forgotten. Parenthood is really a masterclass in the art of the multistranded movie.

From the opening first scene – “You have a lovely family and I’m a goddamn amalgam” – which looks like this is a typical scene of a father and son at a baseball game but reveals itself to be a clever inverted memory, Ganz, Mandel and Howard signpost that while this film might have all the trappings of the typical 1980s family film, there is something a bit more clever going on underneath here.

In the main, the cast fulfill this promise and then some. Tom Hulce, Dianne Wiest, Leaf (later Joaquin) Phoenix and Jason Robards in particular lift this film into something far above what its genre portends. Each of them appears to be acting in an entirely different kind of movie, a sharper movie, and it works beautifully. Tom Hulce is breathtaking as the selfish, destructive youngest son and the scenes between him and his adoring and too forgiving father played by Robards have an air of unflinching, heartbreaking naturalism that one rarely gets in family comedies. Heaven only knows how they got Hulce to be in this film, but he and Robards both add to it immeasurably, particularly in that terrible moment when Robards realises how much he is to blame for his son’s behaviour.
Wiest is both devastating and hilarious as the single mother trying to hold together her family of her sexually active teenage daughter and her miserable pubescent son. Her forced and false sunny “Hi Gary!” whenever her son enters the room feels so real and sweet, and she is easily the one of the four adult siblings with whom I always want to spend more time.

Then there’s Leaf, as he was known then, in what is possibly the hardest part in the film. He has to play a near silent tortured boy, but simultaneously have enough humanity so the audience accepts it when he suddenly changes. In the scene when he calls his father and asks him to live with him, Phoenix, who was barely 15 when the film was made, manages to convey his heartbreak with just his shoulders as the camera perches behind him. He is astonishingly good in this.

As for the others, let us have a few moments of respect of Keanu Reeves who is lovely in this utterly thankless role. When Reeves one day gets his Lifetime Achievement Oscar, as I will argue to the death he deserves, I know that the montage of clips will focus primarily on My Private Idaho, a bit of Point Break and some Bill and Ted for comedy’s sake. But they really need to include his scene in the kitchen with Wiest – “That is one messed up little dude” – and the moment when he physically shakes himself out of his serious talk. His relationship with Martha Plimpton – who is always a pleasure to see on screen – is handled rather well and not nearly as simplistically as one might have expected from this genre of movie.

Rick Moranis is a delight, cast vaguely against type as the Alpha dad, determined to teach his kid the works of Tolstoy before the age of four. Yet I find his plot strand to be the weakest element in the film, mainly because it’s just too ridiculous for credibility and partly because Harley Kozak, who plays his wife, is a pretty unmemorable presence next to Wiest and Hulce.

Then there’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen plot, and this one should be the heart of the film but, for various reasons, I find it the most tedious. It is, of course, a legal requirement that any movie Martin appeared in during the 70s and 80s had to feature a scene in which he appears to lose all control of his limbs and mental faculties, and there are plenty of “Steve Martin physical comedy set pieces” here, from Cowboy Gil to his delight when the Little League team win. Personally, I find this kind of zaniness about as funny as 1920s vaudeville (few things seem to age more quickly than zeitgeist comedy), and much prefer Martin’s more thoughtful comedy, such as in the brilliant LA Story. Also, this wackiness feels particularly improbable from his character, the uptight hardworker. Martin is very good at being that uptight worker which makes the sudden switch to “Steve Martin, 1970s comedian” feel all the weirder. He and Steenburgen make for a convincing couple, but I’m never fully persuaded by Martin being the father of three, soon to be four. He doesn’t really have the Dad vibe in this movie, unlike, say, Moranis. Maybe this is because his zaniness seems to hog all the space – how can there be room for kids when wacky Steve Martin is around?

But all this sounds like I’m being much more critical of Parenthood than I feel. This is a gold plated enjoyable film. It also features one of the slushiest and one of the best closing movie montages, one that I could and do happily watch three times on repeat, with tear-wrenching music by, inevitably, Randy Newman.

The 1980s produced a lot of terrible, unwatchable and sappy family films. But Parenthood really represents the very best of the genre, with the finest of writers, director and actors. Parenthood demonstrates not just how much can be done with a seemingly typical family movie, but also how smart 1980s movies often unexpectedly are, packing in strong and difficult storylines amidst the comedy in a way you rarely see today. It is undeniably a very 80s movie, but it is also unexpectedly timeless. 

 Next week: Moonstruck


11 thoughts on “Parenthood

  1. Great post – Parenthood is an all-time favourite in our household. Too many good lines, but we often quoted “you smoked pot when you were pregnant” at each other when the children were particularly vile. I think you’re right – despite it’s potential for slushiness, there are some strong undercurrents that give it some meat.

  2. I’ve always caught the beginning of Parenthood, but never finished it. I’m getting a couple of wisdom teeth taken out on Friday & this might be a good post-op distraction. But…more importantly, Moonstruck is next week!!! So excited!!!

  3. Some zinging one liners as well:

    “I can’t be a grandmother, I was at Woodstock for Christ’s sake”

    “You were at Woodstock, I was at Woodstock!”

    “Oh I thought you looked familiar”

    Dianne Wiest there, also stands out a few years later in Edward Scissorhands

  4. Always loved parenthood for exactly those few nuanced performances.
    Have never liked Moonstruck- can you persuade me otherwise next week. I’ll watch it inpreparation.

  5. Is it bad form to make requests for future 80s film articles? If not, can I put a vote in for Field of Dreams??

  6. I agree with your obervations on Steve Martin in this film, it just didn’t gel right. Keanu Reeves and Dianne Wiest were probably my favourite performances. It’s weird actually, the whole film seems to be very similar to my own extended family.

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