Picks and Pans Review: Dad

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jack Lemmon, Ted Danson

With 15 or 16 fewer emotional crises, this tale of a father-son relationship might have been a deeply touching drama rather than the sporadically affecting, night-of-the-living-hugs soap opera that it is.

Consider this, though: Lemmon starts out as a barely functional retired man, doddering, bordering on the senile. He gets much worse when his domineering wife, Olympia Dukakis, has a heart attack. Then he gets much better when his son, Danson, comes out from New York (where he is a big-time successful investment banker) to father-sit. But wait! Lemmon suddenly shows signs of a cancerous intestinal problem. Whew! It's okay. He seems to be all right and starts dancing around, playing catch with Danson, getting to know his grandson, Ethan (Dead Poets Society) Hawke, and generally whooping it up. But no! Relapse! He does have cancer and becomes catatonic, barely alive. However! It's just a phase! Danson's relentless lovingness pulls him out of it. He's back home and living it up. But wait!...

Through it all, everyone's means of demonstrating reconciliation is to hug the reconcilee. Lemmon hugs Danson, Danson hugs Hawke, Dukakis hugs Lemmon. If ever the time was ripe for a Leo Buscaglia guest shot, here it is.

Anyway, even Lemmon's substantial resources are sorely tested by the zigzagging script and direction of Gary David Goldberg, a veteran of Family Ties (this is his first feature). His cast's talents save him embarrassment. Lemmon, while he has aged more articulately in other vehicles, makes the exorbitant mood swings of his character tolerable. Danson does a reasonable prodigal-son number. And there is solid backup from Dukakis, Kathy Baker (as Danson's long-suffering sister), Hawke, Zakes (A Dry White Season) Mokae as a sympathetic doctor and, especially, from Kevin (Working Girl) Spacey as Baker's good-natured husband.

At any given incident, Goldberg can keep things in control. When Danson first visits his mom in the hospital, for instance, Dukakis says, "It must be serious if you're here." He snaps back, "That's why you're the best. Not many people would have gone for guilt in this situation."

Goldberg seems to have been intent, however, on cramming a whole season's worth of plot into one two-hour movie. Old age is eventful enough and goes by quickly enough—you don't have to fast-forward it. (PG)

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