Wednesday 1 May 2013

Movie Review: Parenthood (1989)

A comic drama about the joys and sorrows of parenting, Parenthood presents a rich microcosm of the challenges that come with raising kids, through many stories within five generations of one large family. Despite the sprawling narratives, director Ron Howard keeps a tight reign and allows his large cast ample opportunities to shine.

In St. Louis, Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) lives close to three of his grown children and their families. Frank's son Gil (Steve Martin) and his wife Karen (Mary Steenburgen) are doing their best to provide their three kids with a middle class upbringing. Despite Gil being an engaged and active Dad, their eldest son Kevin is tense and causing trouble at school. Gil's sister Helen (Dianne Wiest) is a single mom struggling to raise two teenagers. Her daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) is already sexually active, much to her mother's horror, and Julie thinks that she is in love with boyfriend Tod (Keanu Reeves), who is pleasant enough but not exactly ready to support a family. Meanwhile, Helen's son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, credited as Leaf Phoenix) is mad at the world and skulks around carrying a mysterious paper bag.

Gil's other sister Susan (Harley Kozak) is married to the nerdy Nathan (Rick Moranis), and he is an obsessive parent, insisting that their young daughter Patty should only ever be exposed to higher learning concepts beyond her years, with no fun or childlike activities. Gil's younger brother Larry (Tom Hulce) is the black sheep of the family, always looking for the next big deal, and he washes up in town broke, seeking money, and with an unplanned child called Cool in tow. With Larry having no life skills except self-delusion to fall back on, Frank has to confront the eternal duties of being a father.

Howard, screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and producer Brian Grazer were all dealing with fatherhood issues as Parenthood was being conceived and created, and they poured their experiences into the film. The result is a genuine movie with heartfelt emotions, filled with the humour, anxiety, unexpected drama and the delightful moments of joy and fulfilment that accompany parenting.

Of course, for comedic impact and with Steve Martin's presence, some jokes are milked to exaggerated levels, and ironically it is in the prolonged scenes when Martin is given plenty of leeway that Parenthood is at its weakest. Gil's impersonation of a party balloon cowboy is pushed to childish extremes, and there is no need for him to celebrate like a jerk when Kevin's little league baseball team finally wins a game.

But for the most part Parenthood succeeds in capturing the highs and lows of raising kids, with Steenburgen and Wiest delivering the most memorable performances. Steenburgen's Karen is happy to be the wind beneath Gil's wings as the quiet and rational force that keeps the family together. Wiest as Helen starts the movie in an utterly chaotic place, her life rapidly unravelling. Her husband has left her and she is losing influence over both Julie and Garry. But from among all the Buckmans Helen adapts the best to the ever-changing demands of parenting, and by the end of the movie she has regained the respect of her kids by taking decisions that are instinctively correct if traditionally unconventional.

Susan and especially Nathan are prototypes for parents ill-informed about what it takes to raise a well-adjusted child, pushing poor little Patty into mental adulthood at around age four. Susan snaps to reality and catches Nathan's attention just in time for him to still be able to change and rescue Patty's childhood. Susan and Nathan are the only couple in the film that have to deal with a serious wedge, and in the film's most romantic scene Moranis gets to serenade Kozak to try and salvage their relationship.

Jason Robards lends a weighty presence as the patriarch fully aware that he may not have been the greatest dad, but also perceptive enough to know that the role never really ends. The story arc between Frank and Larry is the most poignant, because Larry is most like Frank while also being the biggest failure in Frank's life, and they both know it. Tom Hulce portrays Frank as fast-talking and irresponsible, but alert to the fact that the number of people he can fool even part of the time is dwindling rapidly.

Parenthood is a classy salute to the most noble of human endeavours, celebrating all the failings and insecurities needed to make the successes that much sweeter.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.