One of the great fringe benefits of long-term exposure to the film canon is validating pre-exposure favorites by virtue of comparing them to the canon’s unassailable titans. Hence, I’ve found myself redeeming Ron Howard’s Parenthood (already probably the most fully-realized film in the director’s aesthetically ignoble career) in conversation with film snob friends by calling it the closest modern American popcorn cinema has come to approximating the familial dramedies of Yasujirô Ozu a la Good Morning, or words to that effect. Not that it’s untrue, but it is an admitted dodge from having to defend the film on its own terms. No small challenge, as the film contains all the qualities most snobs reject; that those qualities are executed professionally only adds to the insult. Parenthood is a middlebrow masterpiece. Not a masterpiece of middlebrow but a middlebrow masterpiece, with the latter word being the subject, not the modifier.
Parenthood is a four-family, four-hankie weepie in which most of the characters talk like screenwriters and act like each day is presenting them with the most trying challenge of their domestic lives. It’s baldly derivative of TV (and, in fact, later became a short-lived TV series). It’s only observational to the extent that its exaggerations of the trials and tribulations that color every nuclear or extended family persuade most of its audience to cluck “that’s so how my aunt used to sound when she used to catch my cousin sneaking out at night!” But, then again, what are extended family dynamics but camaraderie defined almost purely by association, be those connections genetic or episodic. What Parenthood’s warmly acted but still strangely isolated parallel dramas get right that a number of similarly-conceived movies don’t (perhaps not Ozu, but let’s compare it to, say, the Cheaper By the Dozen flicks Steve Martin has since been reduced to) is the sense that the mythic bonds of family aren’t nearly as strong as they’re cracked up to be, that there’s as much keeping family members separate from each other as there is inspiring refrains of “I gotcha back.”
Parenthood depicts the brood of families that have developed around the four children of Frank and Marilyn Buckman (Jason Robards and Eileen Ryan). There is Gil (Steve Martin), who made it his lifelong goal to be a better father to his children than the hard-drinking, emotionally distant non-role model Frank was to him, even if it means micromanaging his eldest son into a grimacing, nervous wreck. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is still coping with her divorce from the father of her two teenage children, both of whom are reeling from the lack of a father figure in various ways. (Wiest was justly nominated for an Oscar for, if nothing else, jumping up and down in the low heels of a real-estate broker and screaming, “I have no life!” and remaining dignified.) Susan (Harley Kozak) is married to an egghead twit (Rick Moranis) committing intellectual abuse to both her and their daughter in an attempt to better their lives. Last and least, at least in the estimation of the other three, is Larry (Tom Hulce), very much the youngest child in his overreaching attempts to land the big score (his shady business deals turn out to be a psychotic gambling addiction).
The film is structured dramatically around three major gatherings for the entire clan (the first is hostile, the second falsely elated, the final contented) but is otherwise broken up into bite-sized chunks and quotable Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel bons mot like a naturalistic episode of Gilmore Girls without the overload of undisciplined pop-cultural references. (Helen’s daughter cries, after being dumped by her boyfriend, “He said he loved me.” Helen, still embittered toward her ex-husband, retorts, “They say that…then they cum.”) The crises of the film are reasonably provocative for their milieu, though certainly tamer than the hypothetical worst-case scenarios many real families deal with, stuff that would probably send Parenthood’s families into full-blown rejection mode. Susan’s daughter is the victim of an overbearing parent, not, say, a neglectful one. Larry owes bookies $26,000, but at least he only tried to sell his father’s classic car on the black market and not, say, his illegitimate baby son. Helen’s biggest concern relating to her teen daughter is that she’s pregnant and married, not that, say, she secretly doesn’t know the paternity of her unborn child. And Gil’s son is neurotic and lacks confidence because he can’t catch a fly ball during his little league games, not because he, say, secretly sneaks peeks at the male underwear section of his mom’s Sears catalog.
About the only genuinely unsettling conflict presented in Parenthood is the weak-willed resignation of the Buckman matriarch Marilyn, who has apparently spent the better part of 40 years quietly absorbing Frank’s insistently cruel verbal blows. But, of course, that’s the dynamic least explored in the entire film, as though all four children were conceived in the absence of sex and are now trying to cope with this strange new kink in family planning. Ron Howard’s baby-food sensibilities are a solid match for a film in which Susan wails to her pretentious husband, “They’re not sibs, they’re babies!,” and especially for a film in which the entire life experience is summed up with a metaphoric story about carnival rides. Parenthood is evasive of any fringe definition of “family,” but in its extremely well balanced portrayal of petite turmoil afflicting the norm, it arrives at any number of jejune truths. Truths such as: when you’re riding in your Chevy and your shorts are kind of heavy, diarrhea.