Parenthood (1989): It’s a Mess and That’s Okay

Parenthood_(film)_posterThere’s something apropos about baseball having such a central spot in the storyline of Parenthood because this is a movie wrapped up in the American experience from a very particular era. Yes, the euphoric joys and manifold stressors of parenting are in some form universal, but Ron Howard’s ode to the art of childrearing is also wonderfully indicative of its time.

What is more relatable than wrangling the whole family to go to a ball game together?  Gil (Steve Martin) and Helen (Mary Steenburgen) Buckman corral their family together, gathering all the stuff, and making sure the little ones don’t get run over by oncoming traffic as Randy Newman drawls his theme song. Piling into the family van and loading up to head home is a process unto itself. In one way, it’s a treat and an ordeal all rolled into one. A lot like parenting.

In fact, with its subject matter considered, this is not your prototypical Ron Howard movie, and by that I mean it feels more overtly personal in nature. Certainly, Clint Howard gets his usual cameo, but the story speaks more about experiences — experiences of the worries and the joys that overtake you.

They become a focal point of this story as the adults try to navigate life together with three kids and a large extended family.  To a lesser degree, Little League baseball also becomes an integral part of life with Gil coaching his son Kevin’s team. It’s a different indicator of life as his boy is constantly made fearful of messing up.

He’s hardly the next Ozzie Smith or Ryne Sandberg. And when you’re a kid, the respect of your peers makes or breaks everything. You don’t want to be the one to let your team down. Could this all be part of the issues Kevin has according to his teachers?

However, as the roving ensemble is introduced with a patchwork of interrelated stories stitched together, you begin to appreciate the problems visible everywhere. This is imperative. They are part of what makes us human, and the full-bodied cast is what makes the relational dynamics sing.

Helen Buckman (Dianne Wiest) is a single mother just trying to get close to her kids with a distant son (Joaquin Phoenix) who won’t talk to her and a daughter (Martha Plimpton) who’s gone and got shacked up with a real airhead (Keanu Reeves). It’s like her life is crumbling all around her, and she must learn to hold it together, the best she knows how. This is her life.

Nathan Huffner (Rick Moranis) and his wife Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) are raising their daughter to be some sort of savant and her IQ runs circles around her cousins. She’s also simultaneously missing out on all the joys of being a kid. Her mother becomes overwhelmed by their strict parenting regimen, and it begins to leave a toll on their marriage. It’s so very easy to forget your priorities — how you ever fell in love in the first place.

Then, there’s the rather cantankerous Jason Robards. He’s fond of his youngest child Larry (Tom Hulce), the black sheep of the family because he’s lively and fun. Even dad is surprised when his boy returns home with a young son named Cool and a raging gambling problem; it’s got him in bad with some dangerous thugs.

Can you imagine the family dinners that these people have? There’s so much going on and yet they’re probably not all that far removed from our own family holidays. At least the spirit is there — something we can latch onto — and probably relate to.

However, it’s the party scenes allowing Steve Martin to showcase his comic chops as he takes on his cowboy persona to captivate all the kids and earn their appreciation while upholding his son’s reputation. It’s an emotional high in the bipolar ride you go through as a parent. Like any parents, they dream their little darlings will be valedictorians, and other times they fear that they might just as easily turn into a shooter. Often reality strikes a middle ground.

It’s far from flawless in its narrative, but that’s the point. It gets so bad Martin is going batty lashing out at his wife and everyone else. His son’s emotional anxieties have him worried. He’s stressed by a workplace that feels totally opportunistic and callous. Now, his wife’s supposed to have a baby and the news feels more like a burden than a gift.

If life doesn’t radically change, then perspectives certainly do. Robards and Martin have a surprisingly poignant conversation while sitting in the Little League dugout. Father talks to son about how there is no end zone in life. Your children and the people around you are there for good. And you’ll love them no matter what. It’s one significant moment of sentiment among many others.

In this way, Parenthood confidently modulates between drama and pathos, humor and romance, then circling back again. If little has changed from the beginning to end, then certainly their perspective evolves. It has something to do with embracing this beautiful chaos of life. Enjoying the ride as opposed to fearing every jolt of turbulence.  Sometimes the simplest wisdom can be the most profound if you let it.

Grandma says she’s always appreciated the rollercoaster to going round and round on a merry-go-round. Parenthood is the rollercoaster and that’s a compliment. It feels alive and idiosyncratic in a way one does not usually attribute to Ron Howard’s more recent work. It’s a refreshing take and probably a high point of his directorial career. I am not a parent myself, but I can only imagine how its observations would take on new resonance after becoming one.

3.5/5 Stars

Melvin and Howard (1980): A “Good” Samaritan and A Millionaire

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The opening sequence of Melvin and Howard takes on more and more meaning the longer the movie goes on. It’s very simple, really. We open up with some joyrider on his motorbike tearing through the desert, taking on every jump through the arid wasteland with reckless abandon.

As one might suspect, his foolhardy stunt bites him in the butt; he winds up in a spill, leaving him incapacitated in the middle of nowhere. It’s night and pitch dark now. Thankfully, there is a good samaritan who picks him up. As he gets closer and pulls the injured man into his car, we get a better look at him. He’s a scruffy-looking man well-advanced in years.

Here we have the inauspicious introduction of Melvin and Howard. Melvin (Paul Le Mat) is really a nobody, but he does have a sense of decency, picking up this old man without any pretense or sense of knowing who he is. Because Howard (Jason Robards), is Howard Hughes — the eccentric, aviating millionaire.

They talk and share something genuine between two people. Howard’s resistant at first. He doesn’t want to take part in Melvin’s friendly chatter nor does he go much for singing songs. Melvin nevertheless obliges with the tune he mailed into a music label for. They took his lyrics and supplied a tune. The outcome birthed a new Christmas classic, “Souped-Up Santa’s Sleigh.” Howard’s exterior cracks briefly as he relents and proceeds to hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in response.

The scene doesn’t look like much, but it plays extraordinarily well. Then, just like that, they part ways. At the request of Howard, Melvin drops him off out back of a hotel — the old man still hobbling and beat up. But he’s adamant this is where he wants to be, so Melvin relents.

We think this is just the beginning, and it is, yet we never see Hughes (or Robards) again (well, almost). But it’s this moment of initial connection and humanity that not only informs the rest of the story but sets the tone for Jonathan Demme’s free-flowing biography of a little guy.

If you want to think about it in such terms, it’s an off-center Howard Hughes biopic where the central character is a man named Melvin, who reflects a different cross-section of society. It’s the kind of story you wouldn’t think would get the Hollywood treatment and yet here it is, and the director gives it the kind of love and affection necessary to make it feel lived-in and sincere.

Here is a man who lives in a trailer. His wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is a sweet woman and together they have a darling daughter who only sees the best in her folks even if their flaws are forever visible.

These are the flaws that keep the life of the Dummars in a constant state of disruption. Whether it’s money troubles, due to Melvin’s spendthrift philosophy, or Lynda’s working of the seedy nightclub circuit, there’s a great deal of dysfunction in their family life. But at their core is a near-oblivious simplicity and so even as their life is a bumpy ordeal, there’s something endearing them — making us wish the best for them.

He’s visibly repulsed by her work — he doesn’t want her flaunting herself in front of strangers. His home life is humble, but he gladly sits in front of the TV with his daughter feasting on pop tarts and bacon. Lynda never seems to dislike Melvin; she just knows it’s not possible to rely on him. So, over the course of the picture, they get divorced, then remarried, complete with one of those throw-em-together hotel wedding ceremonies for $39.

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If it’s not evident already, Melvin & Howard is a film that seems continually preoccupied with the desert backroads and small-towns of America. Where the country music is ubiquitous and people live simple, unadorned lives. Where Melvin’s chances to earn the mantle of milkman of the month get threatened or the car gets repossessed.

But there’s also an itinerant element — to pick up and go in search of new lives and new fortunes — and because the film chooses to stay with Melvin, the story itself takes on this antsy quality. Never being fully satisfied to dwell in one place. However, far from giving off a superficial impression, it winds up coloring a world with all sorts of genuine nooks and crannies.

It’s not a charmed life, but he meets it with continual candor. The reunited family gets by losing themselves in TV game show episodes of Easy Street, which become a kind of communal event for everyone. Lynda fulfills a dream by getting on the show as a contestant and feverishly tap-dancing her way through the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the prize of $10,000!

Still, the family splinters again. Melvin picks up and moves to Utah after marrying a Mormon girl. They set up shop in a gas station. The so-called focal point of Melvin’s life feels squeezed into the end of this movie, not that it’s shoehorned into the story by any means, but it shows how his life adds up to something more than the media frenzy that soon overtakes him.

Because he was the man who had the unsubstantiated will of the late Howard Hughes dropped on his gas station desk naming him as 1/16 beneficiaries of Hughes’s fortunes. That added up to approximately $156 million! In the aftermath, he found himself brought into court to testify as his story was heavily disputed. It does sound absolutely ludicrous. 

How this seemingly unextraordinary individual could find himself at the center of something so grand and earth-shattering is a real-life farce. However, what lingers is the import of the first scene. Demme does well to return there if only briefly, to remind us what this frenzy was about.

Lest we feel slighted that this movie wasn’t really about Melvin and Howard at all (or at least mostly Melvin), in some way it says as much about Howard Hughes’ life by leaving out all the trumped-up treatment. It’s the romantic in me, but I would like to believe that even our momentary interactions with one another can be blessed.

It is possible to touch someone else, adding even a little bit of goodness into their lives. It’s this kind of goodwill to strangers that can stay with them for a lifetime, whether or not they include us in their wills or not. Who knows, you might be entertaining angels unawares, or misanthropic millionaires, for that matter.

4/5 Stars

Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars