During the Christmas holiday season, my two favorite movies of that genre — “A Christmas Story” and the original “Miracle on 34th Street” — are televised almost constantly.
But on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, perhaps the ultimate film on parenting is usually nowhere to be found.
Although it topped the box-office charts for a time in 1989, earned two Academy Award nominations and inspired a pair of television series, the big-screen version of “Parenthood” might be undervalued. It is one of those rare comedies that is not only funny, but also insightful about the family experience.
Even if it doesn’t air on television, it is worth checking out through video or streaming on Father’s Day.
Jason Robards plays Frank Buckman, a crusty retiree who is the father of four adult children facing differing dilemmas.
His son Gil (played by Steve Martin) is a sales executive who believes his career advancement has been retarded by his devotion to his wife Karen (Mary Steenburgen) and their three children. When Karen reveals that a fourth child is on the way, Gil fears he might not be able to handle the added responsibility.
Gil’s sister Helen (Dianne Wiest) is a single mom raising two rebellious children (played by Martha Plimpton and a young Joaquin Phoenix, here billed as Leaf Phoenix). Scarred by divorce, she is horrified when her teenage daughter takes up with an apparent slacker (Keanu Reeves).
Another sister, Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), is a teacher contemplating splitting from her scientist husband Nathan (Rick Moranis), who is going to absurd lengths to raise their young daughter as a genius.
Then there’s Larry, the black sheep of the family. Played by Tom Hulce, he is a con artist addicted to gambling and get-rich-quick schemes.
As with many multipronged plots, all the elements in this film are not created equally.
Although Kozak and Moranis are appealing performers, their segment really doesn’t work. Her character is underdeveloped, while his isn’t very believable. The late scene in which Nathan attempts to woo back his estranged wife by singing the Carpenters hit “Close to You” in front of her class is almost cringe-inducing.
For the most part, however, director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel demonstrate a genuine flair for family dynamics. Robards’ icy patriarch doesn’t buy Larry’s claims of reform for a second, yet he can’t bring himself to cut ties with his son entirely.
The film is also enhanced by a particularly well-chosen cast.
The Oscar-nominated Wiest superbly captures the character of an initially bitter mother who gradually becomes more tolerant of her children’s lifestyle choices.
Steenburgen improves the quality of every film in which she appears. And while his role seems tailor-made, Reeves finds unexpected depth in it, particularly when he improbably bonds with Phoenix’s character.
The film’s emotional cornerstone, however, is Martin’s character. To the likely surprise of his detractors, he nails the role.
He has a few funny moments, particularly when he is forced to improvise entertainment for his son’s birthday party. But Martin is equally effective in portraying his character’s inner conflict. Parents who have experienced difficulty balancing family and career can easily recognize themselves in his performance.
Martin’s movie career occasionally has drawn unfavorable comparisons to that of the late Robin Williams, another stand-up comedian who transitioned to the big screen at about the same time.
A four-time Oscar nominee who won for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” the manic Williams had the capacity for making good films better. But he could also could make bad films worse by overdoing his standard tortured-clown screen persona. (I’m still trying to get back the 2 1/2 hours I wasted one New Year’s Eve watching Williams portray a lovesick robot in the 1999 turkey “Bicentennial Man.”)
Martin has made his share of clinkers as well. A friend of mine traditionally recoils at the mere mention of attending a Steve Martin movie.
Yet, unlike Williams, Martin has a knack for convincingly playing everyman types. While I haven’t always been a fan of his comedic style, he’s made a surprising number of films I like — “All of Me,” “Roxanne,” “L.A. Story,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Grand Canyon” and the 1991 version of “Father of the Bride” among them.
Perhaps not coincidentally, he’s been paired with strong co-stars (such as Diane Keaton, Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn and Michael Caine) or been part of an ensemble cast in most of his better efforts.
A critic once wrote that a little of Steve Martin goes a long way. In a quality ensemble piece such as “Parenthood,” that description actually serves as a compliment.
Rick Anderson, retired sports editor of The Daily World, now is a contributing columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.