By Marc S. Sanders
Once you’re a parent, you’re always a parent. You’re also always a child to someone. No matter if you are close with your mom and dad, or estranged and not on speaking terms, or your parents have passed on, you are always a child to someone. Parenthood from 1989 demonstrates that you never clock out from being a parent or a child.
The Buckmans consist of four adult children portrayed by Steve Martin, Dianne Weist, Harley Kozak and Tom Hulce. They all got little ones to tend to with respective partners (Martin with Mary Steenburgen, Kozak with Rick Moranis and the other two are currently on the single status). Their parents are portrayed by Jason Robards and Eileen Ryan and even the generation before them is represented by Helen Shaw.
With a cast of characters this large, there are various storylines and dynamics of raising and supporting children to go around. Each child, or in other words, each parent has daily struggles to deal with. The nuclear family of Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen’s is given the most attention when it is uncovered that their eldest child of three is struggling with anxiety. Elsewhere, Robards finds himself trying to rescue his immature, lying twenty-seven-year-old son, Hulce, from gambling addiction and debt. Weist is doing her best to survive a sexless life after her letch of an ex-husband has left her to deal with a daughter (Martha Plimpton) pregnant and married to a stock-car racing airhead (Keanu Reeves) and a quiet, distant teenage son (Leaf, later known as Joaquin, Phoenix). Kozak’s storyline really belongs to Rick Moranis as her genius, nerdy husband determined to raise their three-year-old daughter as a virtuoso prodigy. Kafka is a bedtime story.
Wow, that’s a lot of baggage to unload in two hours’ time. Yet, it works so efficiently in a film directed by Ron Howard. I’ve used this compliment before, but it bears repeating. You can write a full-length screenplay about any one of these characters. I guess that is the goal you strive for when you produce a film featuring an all star cast filling the slots of a large collection of characters. A film like Boogie Nights and Love, Actually accomplishes this feat so well. Parenthood just the same.
Favorite moments for me occur with Jason Robards’ character. It is evident that he was not the best father, particularly to Martin’s character, and his admiration is likely misdirected towards the kid who hasn’t made the best choices in life, played by an aloof Tom Hulce. I really like the story arc of Robards and Hulce’s relationship when the truth rests like an ugly slime on the surface that just can’t be filtered away. Suddenly, a man prepared for retirement and rest, has to acknowledge that his adult son needs help but is he worthy of support and love any longer? This movie is arguably not even the highlight of Jason Robards career, but you can not deny what a gifted actor he was. His timing and delivery are so recognizable as a hard-edged retiree parent.
Dianne Weist, the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar for this film, has a couple of good storylines as well. Much of her performance stems from all too common drama where a spouse leaves her and abandons any relationship he had with their children. It’s so unfair for the child. It’s hard on the mother who has to maintain a career while raising teenagers who are entering a new phase with regards to love and sex. Plimpton gets into an argument with Reeves, her boyfriend, and Weist starts to swat him away. Then Plimpton unexpectedly announces they just got married and Weist turns to swatting Plimpton. Weist is funny while the material holds dramatically. It’s a real nice balance.
Steve Martin has a good storyline as well. He’s a hard working white collar executive who wants to prioritize attention for his son though it kills him to lose out on a promotion he knows he’s entitled to. At the same time, he battles with how his own father (Robards) treated him at a young age. He makes sure that his son’s birthday party is the best. He encourages the boy to play second base on the little league team. He attempts to do everything denied of his own childhood for his son, now. Still, it’s not enough. Parenthood can often feel like a winless battle.
Martin also has good scenes with Steenburgen, and they remind me of my relationship with my wife. She’s the sensible one. I’m the one who gets trapped in insecurity and anxiety and low self esteem as a worker, a friend, a husband, and especially as a parent to our teenage daughter. I excel at taking care of the bills though.
Why am I making this personal all of the sudden? Well, perhaps it is to call out the true nature of family and marriage that exists within the script for Parenthood, written by Babaloo Mandell, Lowell Ganz and Ron Howard. There are some moments where Martin’s character daydreams of scenarios for his son. One time the boy becomes a valedictorian with a speech offering complete recognition towards his father. In another moment, he’s a rooftop sniper blaming dad for making him play second base and missing the game winning out. When I get trapped listening to the thoughts in my head, I envision what could be. More often than not I’m predicting dread, which almost never arrives. Yet, I believe parents yearn to raise the perfect child that they never were. It’s an impossible stretch. I write that here and now, and still, I’ll try and try. So what, though! While I’m working for perfection and absolute happiness for my daughter, I must remind myself that my efforts are contributing towards a successful path for her full of fulfillment and happiness. More importantly, while at least half of my efforts could lead in failure on my part, my intentions are always done with absolute love and care for her. That’s what I see in the here and now. I’m blessed. My whole family is blessed. So many families have it so much worse and I wish them well. I have to remind myself not to take what I have for granted.
Ron Howard’s film is not entirely perfect. I could have done without some of Steve Martin’s recognizable schtick from his stand-up routines. I always like his material. I just think some of it doesn’t belong here, the same way Robin Williams would let his known antics creep into some of his films. Some scenes are also spliced into the film jarringly, like when a dentist’s office is suddenly vandalized. Thematically, these break away moments should have remained on the editing floor. Fortunately, the movie isn’t anchored by these plot points for too long.
There’s much to relate to with Parenthood. Kids who gleefully sing about diarrhea, to parents mired in regret and doubt. Teenagers who think they have found love to the absence of father figures. Grown-ups who just haven’t grown up and parents who are just getting a little too ambitious in their child’s upbringing. This is not a film, necessarily about the love a parent has for a son or daughter. Rather, I appreciate how it questions the role these characters serve towards their fathers, mothers and children.
Love is only one dynamic in fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood. Parenthood focuses on everything else.