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MOVIE REVIEW : Ahhhh! The Joys of ‘Parenthood’

Times Film Critic

“The thing about being a parent,” snarls Jason Robards’ patriarch in “Parenthood” (throughout San Diego County), an irascible, near-failure at the job himself, “is that it never, never ends.” How many sighs will float through the audience at that moment, validating a sentiment that seems to come from one parent’s very corpuscles.

Then, because this is a screenplay by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“Splash,” “Night Shift”), Robards adds a kicker to his sentence. It’s one of the pungent jabs to the funny bone that sets the movie’s tempo, an unrelenting one-two rhythm that eventually overwhelms any demurrers about sticky-sweet patches in the face of this much wit, nerve and insight.

Parenthood never does end, of course, and neither does being a son or daughter, which is the beauty of this movie’s across-the-board appeal. This may be one family, but as it spreads over four generations and four separate households, no special-interest group is left unscathed.

Baby boomers may feel it’s aimed directly at them, with its excruciatingly funny portrait of a father (Rick Moranis) who is going to see to it that his daughter has a nodding acquaintance with Kafka, square roots and karate, well before she’s 4. Parents of school-dubbed “hyperactive” or clenchingly tense 8- to 10-year-olds will be certain the movie makers were eavesdropping on their last parents’ conference.

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Those with “impossible” neon-haired teen-agers whose every sentence is punctuated by a slammed door, might swear that “Parenthood” was their group portrait. And adult children of alcoholics (are they the largest growing subculture right now or does it only seem so?) might claim the movie as their own after watching the emotional fallout from Robards’ boozy, indifferent attempts at fathering, four decades later.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy? Ah, but that’s exactly what gives this very real comic delight its backbone. Director Ron Howard, who also created the film’s original story with Ganz and Mandel, uses these bittersweet elements like smelling salts, to bring us around after the laughing-gas effect of the jokes. His fine touch with ensembles (“Cocoon”) reaches real maturity here, as he pulls together the script’s tendency to skitter between sociology and sitcom, making it into one perceptive, delicious whole.

A family tree may be in order. Robards and a vastly put-upon Eileen Ryan are parents of two sons--Steve Martin and young black sheep Tom Hulce--as well as two daughters--Dianne Wiest, whose husband has left her, and lovely newcomer Harley Kozak, whose husband (Moranis), alas, has not. There are what seem to be 142 assorted children parceled out to these parents, although it may only be seven. And there is Helen Shaw’s Grandma, who is actually great-grandma.

Over at Steve Martin’s house, we get a heartfelt portrait of a father trying wildly to juggle increased pressure from work and his need to give his three children what he never had, a father figure. Martin may be a touch anxious as he goes about it, however, and that tenseness has transferred itself to his 8-year-old son Kevin (Jasen Fisher), whose face has all the relaxation of a barnacle clinging to its rock. Mercifully, Martin has had the good sense to have married Mary Steenburgen, the ballast to his every wild gyration. If you were going to choose a single person to represent serene faith in the future, you could do no better than Steenburgen.

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Wiest, still furious about her ex-husband’s abandonment of their two children in favor of his “new” family, is trying to be the cool, unshockable modern mom. It won’t be easy. She has to arrange her face around a teen-age daughter (Martha Plimpton) with a live-in boyfriend (Keanu Reeves) who lives only to drag-race, and a young son (Leaf Phoenix) whose video tastes run to the X-rated. Wiest has the movie’s tartest lines and most spirited character and she does them both proud.

Hulce, along with Robards, gets “Parenthood’s” unsympathetic character, a compulsive gambler and absent-minded father (to a winning, half-black little son, the result of a fleeting liaison with an “Elvis on Ice” chorine) who, if not stopped, would sell the family house and every stick in it to stay ahead of his gambling debts. Best line: As he is dumped out of a gambler’s moving car onto the pavement Hulce explains quickly that “friends” dropped him off. “Friends slow down,” Robards observes dourly. “They even stop.” Yet it’s the interaction between these two that makes the film’s greatest poignancy. (That and a brilliantly written scene as Martin says good night to his sweet, troubled son.)

Battles and boners; lost retainers and lost virginity; first marriages, last marriages and marriages that may not last. The film makers seem to know it all intimately and are able to laugh nevertheless.

The quibbles come from a couple of points: The almost hysterically pro-parenthood ending, so broad some of the careful tone is sloshed away. The cheap-shot lines thrown (mostly) to Grandma. The character of Robards’ extremely long-suffering wife, butt of his every disparaging remark. Was she the victim of the script’s dropped stitch? Seems as though she deserves to get a bit of her own back. Finally, isn’t it time for a moratorium on Rick Moranis’ unvarying character, the nerdy lover/ husband who, in picture after picture but especially here, attracts perfectly dazzling women for unfathomable reasons. He has become as irritating a bit of movie shorthand as Wallace Shawn.

The remaining cast, young, old and in-between, is lovely. Among the standouts are Keanu Reeves’ jangly-limbed lover who proves to have unexpected facets; Harley Kozak’s luscious, level-headed wife and both Jasen Fisher’s and Leaf Phoenix’s distressed young sons.

As you might imagine, Randy Newman’s songs on the score are particularly apt and, along with Donald McAlpine’s splendid cinematography, Ruth Morley’s costumes seem exceptionally inventive, especially Martin’s improvised bathmat chaps when he is called upon to be Cowboy Gil, a children’s party entertainer.

‘PARENTHOOD’

A Universal release of an Imagine Entertainment production. Producer Brian Grazer. Executive producer Joseph M. Caracciolo. Director Ron Howard. Screenplay Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel, Howard. Camera Donald McAlpine. Editors Michael Hill, Daniel Hanley. Music Randy Newman. Production design Todd Hallowell. Art direction Christopher Nowak, set decoration Nina Ramsey. Costumes Ruth Morley. Sound Richard S. Church. With Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Harley Kozak, Leaf Phoenix, Eileen Ryan, Helen Shaw.

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Running time: 2 hour, 4 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).


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