Synopsis: Director Ron Howard teams with Steve Martin and an all-star cast to create a hilarious, touching and unforgettable portrait of life’s most rewarding occupation in Parenthood. Steve Martin stars as Gil Buckman, a funny and loving husband who’s also trying too hard to be the ‘perfect’ parent to his uniquely different kids. As Gil and the rest of the Buckmans discover, being the ‘perfect’ parent often means just letting children be themselves. Rick Moranis, Keanu Reeves, Martha Plimpton, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen and Dianne Wiest also star in this family affair you’ll want to watch again and again!
eyelights: its ensemble cast. its down-to-earth approach to family life.
eyesores: its predictability. its lackluster editing. its rushed ending.
“Life is messy”
‘Parenthood’ is a 1989 Ron Howard comedy based on his (and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, as well as longtime producer Brian Glazer’s) personal experiences as a parent. Starring an ensemble cast that included Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, Tom Hulce, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves and a young Joaquim Phoenix, it was a huge hit, grossing nearly 100 million dollars and spawning two television series.
I still remember when it came out: I was 16 back then and I had to listen to my mother’s dismay when she came home from the cinema, having been so offended by it that she and her friend walked out halfway through. For some reason, she had taken exception to the fact that there was some humour surrounding masturbation. She wasn’t even remotely a prude, so I have no idea was bug bit her. Perhaps it hit too close to home, given my age.
Oh, if only she had known.
In any case, I never got around to watching the movie. It was likely a combination of my mother’s reaction and the mature theme; I simply wasn’t ready to watch a movie about parenthood – especially since being a parent was never in the cards for me. But I grew intrigued by it in recent years, perhaps because many of my friends have had children, perhaps because I’m finally maturing, becoming an adult. Scratch that last part. Pfft… good one!
‘Parenthood’ is basically an assortment of vignettes in the life of the Buckman family, which consists of two brothers, two sisters, their parents and their own children. It’s mostly told from the perspective of Steve Martin’s character, Gil, but it follows each of the siblings individually as they try to manage their home lives. It’s a funny, dramatic and touching picture that holds very little back, using the characters’ neuroses to heighten the material.
But mostly, it’s about the cast, which was far better than you’d imagine.
Steve Martin plays Gil, an eager father of two sons and a daughter. While the daughter seems well adjusted, his eldest son has self-esteem and emotional issues – enough so that his school suggests sending him to a special ed class. His youngest son, meanwhile, is a head-butting dunderhead who appears positively underdeveloped for his age – especially in comparison to his high-achieving cousin. Martin is terrific here, forgoing his usual googly eyes and silliness. He’s funny just by playing it straight, by letting the material speak for itself.
Mary Steenburgen plays Gil’s spouse, Karen, a lovely woman who is happy being a stay-at-home mom, but who is considering going back to work anyway. Her personality doesn’t stand out much in a family of strong characters; she is just nice, a good support and partner for Gil and she does what she feels she needs to do to get through the roller-coaster that is her home life. Steenburgen is excellent as usual, even if she is a bit typecast as a self-effacing character. I’d love to see her take on a character with more bite, to see what she’s made of.
Dianne Wiest plays Helen, a single mom of an older daughter and a young teenaged boy. She is barely holding on, overwhelmed as she is with her parenting duties and unable to resolve the ailing dynamics in her family: her daughter is oppositional, insisting on seeing a boy she doesn’t like, and her son won’t talk to her and is evasive. Meanwhile, she remains bitter for having been dumped by her ex and not having any time for a personal life. Wiest was pretty typecasted as a neurotic during the ’80s but I’ve never seen her better; she isn’t at all grating here.
Rick Moranis plays Nathan Huffner, Susan’s husband. It’s unclear what he does outside parenting, but he’s so devoted to raising his daughter that he spends all his time developing her intellect, taking advantage of that moment when they are sponges, as he says. He is greatly concerned by his daughter mixing with her cousins, because he fears that their lack of discipline and apparent developmental challenges might rub off on her. Moranis is amazing here. I’m used to seeing him mug a lot or act goofy, but he played it straight here, and so well.
Harley Kozak plays Susan Buckman, who goes along with Nathan’s plans for her daughter, but feels completely pushed aside in the process, leading her to eat junk food in private (from a secret stash that she has hidden in the closet) for comfort . She is extremely grateful to him for having helped her sort her life out, having once been erratic, wild. This appears to be why she remained silent so far – although she eventually stands up to Nathan to some degree. I don’t recall seeing Kozak anywhere else, but she was entirely credible in the part.
Tom Hulce plays Larry, the younger Buckman sibling. He’s a total delinquent, having learned from his father to always go for broke. This has led him from one failed get-rich-quick scheme to the next his whole life and he’s frowned upon by everyone in the family except his dad, who somehow loves him best. Larry shows up at one of the family gatherings with an illegitimate son he just had dumped on him, as well as a few gambling debts that are a cause for worry. Hulce makes him charming but sleazy in a way that makes him tolerable, but only barely – which is perfect.
Jason Robards is the family patriarch, a sarcastic, snippy person who seems to feel a certain degree of contempt for everyone (especially his spouse) except Larry. He is a dreamer who lives in the past and funds his youngest offspring’s questionable projects because it gives him moments of escapism from a life he clearly wasn’t suited for. He’s possibly the most challenging character to like in the piece because he’s gruff, prickly and rarely ever friendly. Jason Robards is genius in the part, as he always has been, and likely no one could have outshone him.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, including most of the children. Of them all, Martha Plimpton stands out most for her fiery character, but the most surprising of the lot is Keanu Reeves, who actually performs his duties to perfection. Granted, he’s merely playing a spin on his character in the ‘Bill and Ted‘ films, but he’s excellent at playing a goofy but endearing teenager with a low IQ. I suppose that my reaction was due to low expectations.
‘Parenthood’ is interesting because it puts into perspective a parent’s hopes and dreams for their children (sometimes via rather amusing daydream sequences), and the reality that they face – and sometimes refuse to face. Its overarching message is that family life is akin to a roller-coaster, as opposed to a merry-go-round: it’s rockier, but you get more out of it. Essentially, what it’s saying is that, for all the ups and downs, it can be a ride well worth taking.
Date of viewing: May 6, 2015