As soon as the newlywed glow wears off, Judge Joel Pearce will begin pondering the rollercoaster of emotions that goes into siring little future Judges.
It could happen to you.
To date, we've only been able to rediscover Parenthood on a now out-of-print, fullscreen edition on DVD. Finally, this late '80s classic has been put out as a special edition. It has definitely been worth the wait, as this is still one of the most masterful comedies I've seen.
Facts of the Case
It's so hard to do plot summaries of ensemble comedies, but here goes:
Gil Buckman (Steve Martin, Cheaper by the Dozen) is scared of being a terrible father, despite the constant patience and reassurance of his wife Karen (Mary Steenburgen, Joan of Arcadia). His own insecurities come from the lousy parenting of his own father (Jason Robards, Magnolia). That's not to say that there isn't some reason for concern, as Gil's oldest son Kevin (Jasen Fisher) is showing serious signs of emotional trouble.
Gil's siblings also have some serious issues. Helen (Dianne Wiest, Edward Scissorhands) is an abandoned mother of two, struggling to keep control of introvert Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) and support her daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), who is in a serious relationship with likable loser Tod (Keanu Reeves, Constantine).
Meanwhile, Gil and Helen's younger sister Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) is starting to question the strict parenting of her husband Nathan (Rick Moranis, Ghostbusters), who is hoping to transform their toddler into a child genius.
The whole Buckman family is surprised at the sudden return of Larry (Tom Hulce, Amadeus), the black sheep of the family. He has arrived with his very young son, looking for a place to live and escape his gambling debts.
Much chaos ensues.
I will begin with a quick word of warning. The packaging of Parenthood makes it look like a family comedy—something along the lines of Cheaper by the Dozen. It's not. In fact, it tackles some issues that will make kids very confused, make their parents very uncomfortable, and lead to conversations you may not be ready for. Older teens and adults, however, are strongly urged to see it.
Many comedies and family dramas came out around the same time as Parenthood, but few have aged as well. For some reason, everything just came together for this production, allowing it to transcend the genre. This can be primarily attributed to Ron Howard's keen direction, which turns a strong screenplay and good cast into a big fat slice of movie magic. He juggles comedy and tragedy so brilliantly that we are somehow laughing out loud and emotionally touched at the same time. These dramatic shifts in tone should be jarring, but the pacing and timing makes it all fit together. Howard has us laughing and contemplating deep truths, all at the same time. The family dinner near the beginning of the film is a perfect example of this. In this sequence, we learn how the members of this extended family interact, which is both horrifying and hilarious. These relationships are introduced through sharply witty conversations, and by the end of this sequence, we know each of the characters, understand much about their personalities, have pieced together the main sources of conflict in the family, while chuckling consistently throughout. It's an awe-inspiring sequence, the likes of which I've rarely seen in a comedy. Every step along the way, we learn more about the characters and their own experiences through their family dynamics. It's marvelously efficient filmmaking, and it makes the 130 minutes fly by.
Of course, Howard wasn't able to do this on his own. He also had a cast of great performers, each delivering characters who are guaranteed to remind us of someone we're related to. While Steve Martin gets occasionally hammy, he also used this role to show what he would be capable of in more serious future roles. Dianne Wiest is truly brilliant in her turn as Helen, a woman whose overwhelming lack of confidence can almost—but not quite—hide her savagely quick wit. Mary Steenburgen's Karen is a perfect counterpoint to the humor, and Tom "Whatever Happened to Me" Hulce pours an unlikely humanity into the role of Larry. The exchanges between Hulce and Robarts are as pitch-perfect as they are implausible.
Despite a slightly sappy ending, the message here is more complex than expected as well. I think partly about Todd's words of wisdom. "You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car—hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father." This is true, of course, and we see a lot of terrible parenting happen in this film. None of these characters are qualified or prepared for the situations they've found themselves in, and every one of the kids we see are sure to be screwed up in real life. As I think to my own family and my own life, though, I realize that really is that way. Every parent still has painful memories and issues from childhood that prevent them from doing a perfect job. Every child will, indeed, end up screwed up somehow. What's really important in the end is how we take care of each other when we do screw up. I expect that Parenthood will be a reassurance if I ever decide to have children of my own. Families are inherently dysfunctional, and there's no shame in admitting and laughing at that fact. Certainly, I've never seen that truth expressed as joyfully and thoughtfully as in Parenthood.
For fans of the film, the special edition from Universal comes as a long-awaited relief. The video transfer is excellent for its age, featuring good detail levels, a filmlike appearance and a strong black level—all in the proper aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The sound is much better on this release as well. It has been remastered into 5.1, which places the dialogue in the center channel, and mixes the rest across the front sound stage. We even get a few special features this time around. There is a retrospective interview with Howard, producer Brian Grazer, and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It's a great featurette, and quite entertaining to watch. There's also a featurette about the family, which includes footage from during production along with an interview with casting director Jane Jenkins. It's an interesting look at the casting process. Finally, we get a music featurette with songwriter Randy Newman. It's not a fully loaded special edition, but everything here has value.
If you are a parent, or have parents, or have siblings, or lived with a family at some point in your life, you will find a lot to get out of Parenthood. It's one of the rare examples of a film that can be both a comedy and a drama simultaneously, and it does a surprisingly good job of both. Almost two decades after its first release, it's easy to recognize the full brilliance and humanity displayed in this tragicomic masterpiece.
Parenthood is not guilty. We could use more films like this one.
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