In the coming film "The Royal Tenenbaums," Gene Hackman plays a divorced father of three grown and resentful children. When he attempts to win their love through a self-serving ruse, they wonder why they should forgive his failures. "Can't somebody be a [jerk] their whole life and try and repair the damage?" he asks.
It's a question on the minds of filmmakers these days as some recent movies take on the collective guilt of an aging generation trying to pull off parenthood at the eleventh hour. In these films, those seeking to atone for past mistakes tend to be fathers, either divorced, dying or both, who have quite a bit of emotional damage to make up for.
Three fall films illustrate this point: In "Life as a House," Kevin Kline is a divorced and dying father who tries to connect with his alienated son by building a house with him. In "My First Mister," Albert Brooks plays a divorced man who learns that he is dying and that he has a 19-year-old son. Even "K-PAX," a movie about a psychiatric patient claiming to be a planetary traveler, has a subplot involving a divorced psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) reconciling with an estranged son from his first marriage.
"It's boomerism," said screenwriter Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Practical Magic"). "Here we all are at middle age. We look back and say, how could it have been different?"
Swicord herself is expanding the genre to include mothers and daughters; she's adapting Lisa Carey's 1999 novel "The Mermaids Singing," which deals with a young grandmother who wants to raise the daughter of her own recently deceased daughter. "This was a daughter she hadn't seen in 15 years. She has the opportunity to remake the past by becoming the mother she never was," Swicord said. The movie is scheduled to begin filming in Ireland next summer.
Remorse and the quest for redemption through family forgiveness are age-old themes in life and literature. When people are dying, lonely or sick, they naturally feel an urge to attach or reconnect to people they have harmed, psychologists say. "Toward the end of life, there's a need to be forgiven, to have your victim say it's OK," said David Gutmann, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and author of "The Human Elder."
There's no hard evidence to suggest that urge is more or less common than it's ever been. However, the recent spate of movies does address the tumultuous social issues of the baby boomers--namely divorce, single parenthood, blended families and unmarried parents--that over the past three decades have settled into the norm. While rates of divorce and unwed childbearing have declined, about half of all children will live with a single parent at some point in their lives, demographers say. Only 7% of families are headed by a stay-at-home mother and a breadwinning father, according to the latest census figures.
For several years, fractured, if not necessarily dysfunctional, families have become the baseline for many family-related shows on television and in the movies, from "Once and Again" to "Stepmom," "24" to "Domestic Disturbance." Now, the fictional families are finding new ways to reconnect. Despite or because of the cultural shifts, yearnings for family healing are particularly popular among boomers, social historians suspect.
Rarely, if ever, has there been a generation as hyper-conscious about its parenting, as aware of its mistakes and as confident in its ability to undo them. "We always think we have a second act," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of Princeton University's National Marriage Project. "Redemption is in the air," she said.
Kline's angry misanthrope George Monroe, for instance, doesn't realize how badly he's behaved until the day he's fired from his job and also learns he has terminal cancer. Then, the emotionally distant dad shifts into high gear, taking charge of his home building project in Laguna Beach to make his son love him before it's too late. The project ultimately affects not only the son, but also his ex-wife, her new family and the single mother next door.
"There's no real good family in the movie," said "House" co-producer Rob Cowan. "But at the end of the day, they were able to act like a family, even if they're not all living together."
Given the boomers' reputation for narcissistic self-involvement, the films might naturally be assumed to reflect vestiges of their it's-all-about-us attitude. Notoriously critical of their own World War II-generation parents, they were represented in the 1967 hit movie "The Graduate" by Dustin Hoffman, who preferred to sit in scuba gear at the bottom of his parents' swimming pool rather than listen to them talk about his future in plastics. Now that they've made their own parenting mistakes, it's believable that boomers would want to tell the story from their point of view and exonerate themselves.
Yet some of the recent movies were conceived by younger filmmakers from so-called Generation X. "The Royal Tenenbaums" was written by Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, both in their early 30s. Carey was 25 when she wrote her novel "The Mermaids Singing."
In "The Royal Tenenbaums," a fable set in an imaginary New York, the father is blamed for ruining the lives of his brilliant children through his own selfishness. It's clear their reunion is his last chance to make amends. "This guy kind of abandons his family, but he's able to work his way back in," said co-writer Wilson, who also plays a close family friend in the film.
"Tenenbaum" producer Barry Mendel said the humor in the movies derives from real life. "One of the things you find in all of their films is the notion that from time to time we all behave badly," he said.
"Gene Hackman [as Royal Tenenbaum] has obviously visited a lot of harm on his family. What their films are all trying to say is that
Gutmann said the collective fantasy to repair family ruptures is frequently even more intense on the part of the children. Some parents who relinquished children to adoption, for instance, now need protection from children eager to find them, he said.
Whitehead said most of the grown children she studied who had undergone wrenching divorce battles agreed it was a horrible experience they never wanted to replicate. "But they were extremely compassionate to their own parents, very supportive and forgiving," she said. "That's how Gen-Xers are."
Jill Franklyn, author of "My First Mister," her first screenplay, called forgiveness the key to maturity. "If you forgive your parents, you understand what they went through. If you're angry at your parents, you won't be a good parent, you won't be a whole human being because you're just angry," she said.
One of Franklyn's favorite scenes, ultimately cut from the film, depicts John Goodman, as Leelee Sobieski's father, apologizing for being a bad dad. He explains that he also had a bad dad, who in turn had his own. "We have bad dad blood," he tells his daughter, "but I love you."
Franklyn said there has been "a lot of family bonding after that movie." Her own parents, who like Sobieski's screen parents are divorced, saw something of themselves they hadn't seen before, she said.
Cowan said "Life as a House," which received a lukewarm reception, had a profound effect on individuals. He said he read a story on the Internet about a sobbing man in the audience who called his father on his cell phone in the middle of the movie just to say he loved him.
9Of course, reconciliations in real life are never quite the same as the movie versions. Some children of divorce might forgive one parent but still hate the other, Gutmann said. What's more, in reality, last-minute father-son reconciliations are less common than father-daughter ones, he said. In their old age, fathers are more needy for what daughters can ideally offer: uncritically accepting caretakers.
Mothers tend to have less remorse, he said. "Older women get more independent and feisty." Among the examples of feisty older mothers in popular culture are Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment" and TV's "The Golden Girls."
Movies in general should be viewed cautiously as a mirror of the entire culture, according to Josh Gamson, professor of sociology at Yale University. Because of the highly selective nature of the movie-making business, they tend to reflect the views of the filmmakers, he said.
"It's not as if the whole world is a focus group and they're tapping into the population's unconscious and producing films to meet that," said Gamson, who also teaches about media and pop culture.
"It might be more easily explained by how Hollywood works rather than some sudden wave of regret that we've parented badly."
Cowan, 45, said the idea of dealing with a father's past sins came from Mark Andrus, a screenwriter in his mid-40s, but was also developed with him and co-producer Irwin Winkler, 70.
"We were not just trying to tell a white, middle-class story. It's what we knew and could tell the strongest," he said. "It just developed through talking about what strikes people today and people feeling a certain amount of malaise."
In developing movies, however, Cowan said most writers and producers try to come up with themes that everyone can relate to.
"More than anything," he said, "the overriding theme of this film is realizing that time can slip away very quickly on you and before you know it, you've lost a lot of relationships. That's a universal theme."