In "Man of the House," a federal prosecutor (Chevy Chase) pursued by mobsters tries to win over the jealous 11-year-old son of his fiancee (Farrah Fawcett) by joining a nerdy father-son group of Indian Guides. (Rated PG.)
More serious than it might appear, this film begins with a lump-in-the-throat narration by 6-year-old Ben, as he watches his father drive away into a new life with his secretary.
"My dad said he loved me and my mom but that he needed his own space. . . . We decided to start over," Ben says.
At first, his mother dates some, but the men are mostly jerks, so their domestic life keeps reverting to the way Ben likes it best--"just the two of us." That is, until five years later, when his mother falls in love with Jack (Chase), a man with no experience with children.
The very skeptical might wonder why any man would leave the gloriously coiffed Farrah Fawcett, an accomplished artist, sensual companion and great mom, in the first place? How come she gives Ben near-total control of their house, including final say over whom she marries? How can she afford all that great furniture and a loft in Seattle by making sculptures of shovels welded to bicycle wheels? How come Chase isn't as funny as he was in the National Lampoon "Vacation" movies?
But both kids and parents said the film, which is about the various ways Ben tries to undermine their relationship, is realistic in how it deals with Ben's feelings toward Jack. When Jack moves in for a trial period, for instance, Ben tells them he may be psychologically damaged if his mother and Jack sleep in the same bed together. He polices their moves at night. Although Ben's actions may not be very realistic, his emotions are.
Parents of younger children said they worried in the beginning that the movie was going to turn into a sex comedy when Ben tells his mother he knows she wants to marry because women reach their sexual peak in their 30s. A fact, he says, he picked up from talk shows.
But the film quickly focuses on stepfather-stepson relations as Jack and Ben (played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who is on TV's "Home Improvement" and was the voice of Simba in "The Lion King") sign up for the Indian Guides. Ben's plan--that Jack would quickly reject the feather-wearing silliness and drop out of their lives--backfires when Jack recruits a Native American to help the boys learn archery and rain dancing and Ben becomes truly interested.
Jack even keeps his promise to go camping with the group, despite a work conflict that threatens his job.
Kids laughed at the kid humor. For example, Wayne Flynn, 11, liked the Indian name Ben gave to Jack in the Indian Guides: "Squatting Dog." His friend Charlie Acrat, 9, laughed when Ben said he once had a pet squirrel named Numb Nuts. He chuckled at Chase's fumbling efforts to construct a tepee.
Some parents said they easily recognized the caricatures of suburban dads who try to organize bonding events when they have nothing in common but their kids. There's the go-by-the-book dad, the circus-clown dad, the overweight step-dad (George Wendt from "Cheers") who gets into it, and Jack--a federal attorney who stands up to mobsters but can't cope with an 11-year-old's manipulative ploys.
Younger kids liked the "Home Alone" type of climax, when mobsters seeking revenge on Jack follow the Indian Guides to their camp-out, but the boys and their fathers outwit them with their newly acquired Indian Guide skills.
David Pratt, 6, said the scene he remembered most was "when all the group was aiming bows and arrows at (the mobster) and shot them at him, and (Jack threw) the tomahawk at the beehive."
Ultimately, the movie's message seemed aimed less at kids than at would-be stepfathers: If you want it to work, you have to try much harder than you ever expected. Children of divorce might be left with a wishful fantasy--that they might find a stepfather who would make the effort.