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Parenthood is a poignant movie that gives an idea of what can happen when parents objectify their children.
The movie features the dysfunctional Buckman family and friends whose dysfunctions are generally related to the way their father raised them. To compensate for this, in their own way, the parents are determined to raise their children in a "perfect" manner. The problem is that their ideal of "perfect" and the children's ideal don't match.
The story revolves around Gil (Steve Martin) and Karen Buckman (Mary Steenburgen) who fuss about their son Kevin (Jasen Fisher) so much so that he needs therapy; Helen Buckman (Dianne Wiest) who is anti-male (in her own way) that leads to her teenage daughter getting married to her boyfriend (Keanu Reeves) and her son being distant; Nathan (Rick Moranis) and Susan Merrick (Harley Jane Kozak) who wish to turn their children into a prodigy; and Larry (Tom Hulce), the black sheep, who is in custody of his son "cool" (Alex Burrall) and doesn't want anything to do with him. In the background is their father (Jason Robards) who is rough on the outside but soft on the inside.
The film has several insightful messages, including one that life is better a roller coaster: while I believe in ups and downs, I also believe in some sort of a dynamic equilibrium. One of the hypocrisies of parenting exposed in the movie is when Nathan comments that children are more capable of learning than any adult and yet proceeds to force his own vision of what his daughter should become on her.
There is a great cast here and that's what makes this film work. The humour is also excellent and many of the scenes have become pop culture icons (including the diarrhea song, and the "machine gun attack by Kevin" flashback (how prophetic of director Ron Howard)).
In my view, the best way to raise children is to provide them with an environment that doesn't let them forget their dreams, let them learn from their mistakes (even if the lessons are harsh), and truly try to understand what the children want and not attempt to project the parental views and modes onto the children (and I don't speak as a parent, but the way I was raised).+
The prospect of a comedy directed by Ron (Opie) Howard and loaded to bursting with gurgling infants, bratty kids, horny teens and parents who can't cope does not exactly prompt the thrill of anticipation. Howard has done notable work with Splash, Cocoon and the much-underrated Night Shift. Still, the TV sheen on this one suggested something unbearably tweed.
Surprise. Parenthood, heartfelt and howlingly comic, also comes spiced with risk and mischief. Just when you fear the movie might be swept away on a tidal wave of wholesomeness, a line, a scene or a performance poke through to restore messy, perverse reality. Howard, a father of four, longed to make a movie that got down to the grit of child rearing. Along with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, he developed a story about four families. Though full of bounce and bright jests, the script often cuts deeper than most summer nonsense.
It's a shock and a welcome one to see Steve Martin cast against type as a doting dad. Martin's nippy wit continually lifts this movie above the swamp of sentiment. Martin plays Gil Buckman, a parent determined to raise his three kids right, which means unlike the way his neglectful father (Jason Robards) raised him. To live up to his own idea of what a dad should be, Gil sacrifices his career ambitions. This leaves his wife, Karen (the radiant Mary Steenburgen), pinching pennies and Gil stressed out. Martin perfectly captures Gil's rage at his own inadequacy. He's also astonishingly fine at showing the authenticity of Gil's tenderness. Martin's dance of joy when his shy, uncoordinated son hits a baseball out of the park is a lovely, lyrical piece of pantomime. His performance is solid gold.
Dianne Wiest also scores impressively as Helen, Gil's divorcTe sister, who finds her only emotional outlet with a vibrator. None of that for Helen's pot-smoking sixteen-year-old daughter, Julie, played by the ever-incandescent Martha Plimpton. In defense of her active love life with her boyfriend (Keanu Reeves), Julie zaps her mother by saying, "I think someone in this house should be having sex with something that doesn't require batteries."
Howard is a long way from Mayberry with this frank dialogue. Parenthood is most effective when it speaks bluntly about the confusion and the dislocation in American family life. At other times, the movie slides into sitcom. Gil's other sister (Harley Kozak) and her husband (Rick Moranis) spend so much time educating their precocious three-year-old daughter that they lose track of their marriage. Gil's ne'er-do-well brother Larry, cunningly overplayed by Tom Hulce, brings home an illegitimate black son. It's as if Howard were still toiling on television and had to cram in a required number of gags before each commercial.
Howard deserves credit, though, for not retreating when the characters tread in troubled waters. The possibility of abortion is raised when the financially strapped Gil and Karen find themselves faced with an unexpected pregnancy. And there's real bitterness in Helen's voice when she tries to tell her daughter about the treacheries of men. "But he told me that he loved me," says Julie. "Yeah, they say that," Helen retorts. "Then they come." In these scenes, Howard seems eager to communicate with his audience. Parenthood prevails when the script takes its cue from the rude and rowdy Randy Newman score and packs its observations with a sting.