Picks and Pans Review: Parenthood

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

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)

From Our Partners