Dad (1989): United States – directed by Gary David Goldberg
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some language and mature themes
In a lot of ways Dad represents the worst of the motion picture industry. It is not truly awful, and therefore able to be enjoyed in its badness. And yet it is good in very few ways. It is an entirely manipulative movie, mediocre in its execution, and nearly excruciating to watch at times on account of its generic lameness. There may be some spoilers ahead, but I refuse to excuse myself.
There are undoubtedly some interesting themes to be mined from the story. John Tremont (Ted Danson) is a Wall Street executive, busy buying up companies and closing them down. He has an ex-wife, a kid he rarely sees (Ethan Hawke), and a mother and father who aren’t doing too well. When his mom, Bette (Olympia Dukakis), falls ill with a heart problem he leaves his job to take for his elderly father, Jake (Jack Lemmon). Jake has been so reliant on Bette that he can no longer perform even the simplest tasks on his own.
John’s first order of business is to get his father back into working order while his mother recovers in the hospital. Pretty soon Jake is dressing himself, washing the dishes (thanks to a plethora of detailed Post-It notes), and enjoying nights out at bingo with his son (even though most of his old friends, with whom he lost contact, are dead). Jake’s improvement is impressive, even to John’s sister (Kathy Baker) and her husband (a frightfully mustachioed Kevin Spacey).
But then mom gets better and is terrified to learn that there is a new familial order to which she must become accustomed. Then, because mom has already had heart problems, it is necessary (for the story) for dad to be struck with cancer. He is terrified, as the C-word has always been a great fear of his. And because John and his father have become closer during mom’s convalescence John feels an even more personal need to take close care of his dad.
The doctors try to make Jake comfortable, but nothing seems to be working. At this point John makes a scene, rebels against the hospital staff, and carries his father home in an emotional scene with a musical upswell. It seems as though this is supposed to be a serious scene, of the variety they might play at the Oscars, but it feels hokey and utterly laughable. The doctors seem perfectly reasonable, and I found my sympathies lying with them as they attempt to do their jobs. But Jake’s outbreak is supposed to be sympathetic, and it seems as though the doctor’s are supposed to be the bad guys. This is just one instance of the film’s incredible inconsistency.
At various times, both during his “recovery” from Bette’s care and after his stabilization from the cancer, Jake has inexplicable bouts of senility. At times he can dance and enjoy life, and other times he can’t remember a thing and is frightened by the world. This could possibly be partially explained by the bizarre introduction of schizophrenia into the script, but this is just an additional illness that is neither necessary nor welcome.
Added into the mix of melodrama and seriousness are slapstick scenes that destroy any atmosphere or sense of the profound. A scene where Jake attempts to regain his driver’s license is destroyed by John suddenly becoming a helicopter “parent”. Another scene involving Jake pantomiming working with tools is inexplicable and unintentionally humorous. It’s hard to tell if these scenes are supposed to provide comic relief from the serious discussion of disease and aging. They go so far overboard that they destroy any pacing or emotional impact that may have been building.
Movies whose main characters suffer from an incurable disease are often nearly intolerable. Such a delicate and painful situation is hard to balance properly, and Dad fails incredibly by having a large number of diseases (cardiovascular, cancerous, and schizophrenic). The appearance of Ted Danson, who is in nearly every scene, is decidedly unwelcome. The first time he walks down a hallway it is painfully evident that this was filmed in the 1980’s. Jack Lemmon has some poignant moments, but his character is written so erratically that even Lemmon has trouble hitting any of the right notes.
Every good movie is manipulative in certain ways. Emotions must be touched with visuals or appropriate music, and the audience is caused to feel something new or different. In Dad each moment of manipulation (and there are a great number) is so unsubtle that it becomes clear when and why the audience is supposed to be manipulated. It tells the viewer when to feel what, and tells him or her loudly.
I imagine there are a number of people who feel a great affinity to this film, possibly due to experiencing similar difficulties to those in the film, and I fear my negative review might minimize their personal experiences. I would not want this to be the case, so if you enjoyed or appreciated the movie please be assured that I mean you no personal offense. For a viewer without a strong attachment to the themes or actors involved in the picture, its flaws become more evident and it is much more difficult to forgive the film for its trespasses against cinema.