The Joke Is Nothing to Laugh At

Ketura Persellin is finishing a doctoral dissertation in English literature at USC. She is married to a very responsible guy

Like everyone else in the packed movie theater last week, I laughed my head off at the antics of Jim Carrey in his latest box-office success, “Liar Liar.”

Only later did I realize that something was terribly wrong with the movie: Its central joke is that--are you ready for this?--some men are irresponsible fathers, housemates and husbands.

Funny as the movie is, male irresponsibility isn’t all that humorous in real life. In fact, it’s something that causes pain for women, children and families in general. It’s something women have complained about, and feminists have agitated against, for years, in the form of fights for alimony and child support, protection against sexual harassment and other legislation designed to force irresponsible men to do their duty. All too often, a husband forgets a wedding anniversary or that he’s promised to bring home the dry cleaning; a dad fails to show up for a dance recital or a birthday party, as in “Liar Liar”; a boyfriend just can’t seem to set a date for a wedding. And this is just the small stuff.

Commitment and reliability--these qualities, in various forms, have long seemed lacking in too many men. Not all men, but enough of them that everyone who reads this will recognize someone they know. Of course, this is not because men are biologically stuck, missing some sort of dependability gene. No, it’s because too often, others have been willing to pick up the pieces, much as someone married to an alcoholic has to cover for his or her drunk spouse’s inevitable goofs.


So not only does the movie make the unreliable jokester the source of all its yuks, but it makes the nice, rock-solid guy an incredible bore; he can’t even get it right playing silly make-believe games with a little kid. And the pretty, nice wife, having made this mistake once already, forgives too easily.

A friend suggested that the movie is self-conscious about our collective sense of guilt about the overworked dad, that underlying the humor is a real concern about absentee parenting. But I would suggest that the movie ends where it does because when it comes right down to it, we’d rather see the family maintain its very comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle than be a poorer but more close-knit little unit spending more time enjoying one another’s company.

For all the shared grief over the seeming demise of family values, that is a picture most people would pay to see.