Steve Martin, Jason Robards

Here is a comedy that treats the problems and delights of real life with respect, insight, warmth and remarkably sustained wit. Here is a comedy that doesn't rely on invective, phony tension, cheap-shot jokes and reflexive obscenity to earn its laughs. Here is one great American movie.

Start with the cast, which includes almost too many marvelous talents to fit into one film. Martin, as a father determined to treat his children better than his father—Robards—treated him, is more subdued than he has ever been in a movie. Also more touching, more deeply funny, more sympathetic than he was even in Roxanne. Robards, the center of the film, is convincingly stubborn in his delusions about himself and his four children.

But Martin and Robards are only marginally the movie's stars. Dianne Wiest, Tom Hulce and Harley Kozak as Robards's other children and Rick Moranis and Mary Steenburgen as Kozak's and Martin's spouses are uniformly expressive—using every second onscreen to give their characters dimension. Among dozens of kids who show up, Martha Plimpton as Wiest's rebellious teenage daughter, Keanu Reeves as Plimpton's boyfriend and Jasen Fisher, 9, as Martin's anxiety-ridden son are especially striking.

Director Ron Howard keeps the film focused on the painful-exhilarating relationship between kids and parents. One way he does it is by often showing all the participants in a conversation onscreen; the actors react as well as speak their lines. The final Martin-Robards confrontation is, in its way, as emotionally penetrating as the Brando-Steiger scene in On the Waterfront. Robards, unable to talk to his son, even about fatherhood, except in terms of winning and losing, tells him that a parent never stops being a parent, no matter how old his children get: "There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance."

Writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, whose credits include Howard's Splash, lapse in one scene, trying to make a joke by evoking 1966's "Texas Tower" murders. Otherwise they hold a difficult balance. Problems—uncaring divorced fathers, learning disabilities, a wayward son (Hulce), teenage pregnancy—aren't dismissed but are given a roll-with-the-punches perspective.

When Wiest finds porno videotapes in young son Leaf Phoenix's room, she says, "I assume you're watching these because you're curious about sex—or filmmaking." Moranis, determined to make his 3-year-old daughter a genius, has her read Kafka.

Martin, fantasizing about his son's overcoming his learning problems, imagines the boy's college valedictory address: "There was one person who got me through—my father. He did everything right. Now I'm the happiest, most confident person in the world."

These are for the most part very likable people. It's hard not to cry with them, laugh with them and pull for them to make something good out of the whole messy, hopeless, wonderful business. And if the ending wraps things up tidier than necessary, it's not without a cynical side.

Phoenix asks Wiest if his sister's marriage will last. "I give 'em six months," Wiest says. "Four if she cooks." (PG-13)

Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves

Since he has already been clubbed, stabbed, shot, drowned, electrocuted and disposed of in every possible manner, it's clear the only way to get rid of old Jason is by inflicting on him the dreaded sound of teenage feet pitter-pattering off to do something other than see his next sequel. So let's try something: Kids, there's a subliminal message hidden in this movie. If you see it, you will never like beer or sex again for your whole life.

Anyway, the title is misleading. Most of the film is set on a boat bearing a high school graduation class from Crystal Lake to New York City. A few survivors make it to Manhattan, and when Daggett and Reeves tell a diner waitress that a crazed maniac wants to kill them, she shrugs and says, "Welcome to New York."

So much for wit. This movie is basically another gross-a-thon of sharp, dull and indifferent objects being thrust into people's bodies. That director-writer Rob Hedden has a substantial TV-documentary background just makes the whole debacle more pathetic. How about Friday the 13th Part IX: Jason Retires and Opens Up a Little Cutlery Shop in Miami Beach? (R)

Joelle Miquel, Jessica Forde

The delicate, whimsical films of director Eric (Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach) Rohmer are something like French pastry. The hidden delights of an eclair, perhaps. Or the fragility of a napoleon. No, it's more the airy, almost-not-there quality of a cream puff. Anyway, whatever it is, it's not a Twinkie.

Miquel and Forde are two young women—an aspiring artist and an ethnology student—who meet on a calm little country road in the summer and end up as roommates in Paris. Their languorous "adventures" have to do with such things as whether to give money to beggars and how to treat a rude waiter. The laughs are gentle and subtle. When Forde tells Miquel how tired she is of people who say everything twice, Miquel becomes indignant: "I don't repeat," she says. "I don't repeat."

Miquel, who did her own paintings (crude, delightful Dali-Magritte send-ups), is all earnest innocence. Though the strikingly beautiful Forde teases playfully, she is a loyal friend. Their affection seems genuine. But then Rohmer's genius for matching actresses is a crucial part of his talent. As much as anything that happens or is said, the rapport between the two young women makes this film just the thing for anyone who wants a sweet, light diversion. (Unrated) (In French with subtitles)

>ACE THE WONDER DOG Not only is he a lovably scruffy little pooch, but he also has sense enough to disappear for most of Friday the 13th Part VIII, thereby avoiding having lots of blood splashed on his fur.

BEASLEY He may have to take acting lessons to learn Method slobbering so he doesn't drool all over his next picture. But this mastiff, co-star of Turner & Hooch, has an ingratiating gait and the most soulful look this side of Fred Gwynne.

NANA Though she stays home when the kids take off in Peter Pan, the maternal Saint Bernard has some nice scenes early in the Disney cartoon, displaying both a paws-on-the-ground sensibility and a talent for pratfalls.

>OUT OF TOWN: THE 'BURBS

Tom Hanks archivists may like this ticky-tacky comedy—though it ranks between The Money Pit and The Man with One Red Shoe at the bottom of his résumé. But for most of us, strolling the mall would be more fun. (MCA)

WAY OUT OF TOWN: ABDUCTION Based on the real-life 1984 kidnapping of Kari Swenson, a world-class biathlete (skier-shooter), this TV movie features a nicely contained performance by Tracy Pollan (Mrs. Michael J. Fox) as Swenson. Joe Don Baker is the lawman who rescued Pollan after she was abducted by a father-son pair while running in the Montana hills. (Vidmark)