Patron Pick – Parenthood

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

Parenthood (1989)
Written by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, and Ron Howard
Directed by Ron Howard

Parenthood has been a film with some solid legs, managing to be adapted into a television series twice on NBC (1990 and 2010), with the latter staying on the air for six seasons. It emerged from the collaboration between director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, and writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz. Between the four of them, they have 17 children and took their experiences as parents as inspiration. The result is an ensemble film that touches on various aspects of parenting with children featured at every age, from infant to adult, with multiple themes and topics touched upon with a runtime that peaks at just over two hours.

Gil Buckman (Steve Martin) is a sales executive balancing work and home life. His eldest son Kevin appears to be neurodivergent (the film posits this as ’emotional problems’), and this causes him to start blaming himself and questioning if he is a good dad. Meanwhile, his sisters are dealing with their own respective parenting issues. Helen (Diane Wiest) is the eldest of the Buckman family and is divorced. Her ex-husband has nothing to do with his two children, Garry (Joaquin Phoenix) and Julie (Martha Plimpton). Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) is married to Nathan (Rick Moranis), who is obsessed with ensuring their preschool-aged daughter is far advanced. And then there’s Larry (Tom Hulce), the family’s youngest and black sheep. Gil can worm his way back into the good graces of their dad, Frank (Jason Robards) but quickly proves to be up to his old manipulative ways. 

I know many people like this movie, but I am not one of them. It’s not a terrible movie, but it is overstuffed with the plot and is not reflective of what it is like to realistically be a parent in the United States. But you might be saying, you don’t have kids, Seth. How would you know? Well, one of the things that stood out to me the most is that none of these people seem to be having anything close to realistic economic worries. In 1989, the U.S. was on the cusp of a financial crisis in the early 1990s; you wouldn’t know it from watching this movie. You even have a character who is a public school teacher and single-income households who don’t seem to be sweating the expenses of having multiple children. I know why this is. Because the film was based on the experiences of four white dudes who were established in the film industry, it wouldn’t likely cross their minds to think about financial struggles because they never really had any, at least at this point in their lives. 

The characters are not portrayed in a realistic way but in a heightened American movie way. The conflicts between Helen, Julie, and Julie’s boyfriend Tod (Keanu Reeves) read as sitcom-real, not reality-real. I couldn’t help but think of the films of Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese director whose best works are domestic slice-of-life comedies. Ozu never had to add unnecessary melodrama to his work for it to feel relatable. It’s even happening in a different culture (Japan) and under different circumstances (the occupation of Japan by the U.S.), and still, I felt that his movies presented the reality of family life far better than Parenthood. Early Summer, in particular, has a beautiful multi-generational story where you experience the simple joys and tragedies of families. 

The Parenthood script is too full of subplots that you never get a feel for any characters. I expected Larry to be a significant figure in the larger arc, but he meanders in the background and leaves town. He brings a child into the Buckman family none of them knew about, and we never explore the effect this has on everyone. Turning the film into a tv series makes much more sense than a movie because there’s way too much here to develop for anything beyond Gil’s story to feel complete and cohesive. That is the picture’s strength; Martin’s performance made ironic because he didn’t become a father in real life until he was 67. The actor has such a natural warmth that you completely believe him as a caring parent type. Jason Robards is criminally underused in this movie, and the scenes focusing on Frank are memorable. Diane Wiest could have carried a film on her own about Helen’s situation. She feels as believable as Martin. 

I understand why some people love this movie, but it wasn’t for me. If something is going to be melodramatic, I prefer it also be stylish & experimental in its aesthetic to match that heightened reality. If you claim to be a movie about regular people, you shouldn’t feature storylines that play out in hackneyed, sitcom manners. Tod is an endearing character, but simply Keanu doing his Ted schtick again, not a very realistic character. Rick Moranis is always fun to see, but Nathan is a character who goes to the point of cartoon absurdity in how much he’s trying to intellectually build up his child. The argument could be made that American parents are this insane, so the melodrama is not too far from reality, but it’s not to my taste. The sentiment underlying Parenthood is admirable; it’s just the delivery where it falters for me.


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