Warning: this article features in depth story analysis and several plot points are revealed. If you have not seen the film, read at your own peril.
What The Neverending Story is to 80s fantasy Parenthood is to the family film of the 80s, although I doubt you’ve ever seen anything like it before or since. The film was written by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz a writing team that date back to the 70s working on Laverne and Shirley and they still work together, which is a rarity in this day and age. They’re credits include Gung Ho, Multiplicity, A League of Their Own and Spies Like Us and Parenthood was directed by Ron Howard who has always made pretty good films.
This film has one of the best opening scenes. A father (who will later be Jason Robards) brings his son to a baseball game but has to go see some clients so he leaves him with an usher and it’s his 9th birthday. The usher sits next to him and starts a conversation the boy responds and says “You’re not really here. You’re an amalgam. A combination of all the ushers my dad left me with over the years. You see my dad, when he was a kid, was without a positive male influence,” and so on. This is hysterical dialogue coming from a kid and there’s a partial break in the fantasy and we see his wife, Karen (Mary Steenburgen); still as a kid he tells the usher that’s his wife. “The game’s over, honey,” and the fantasy is broken. We see Gil (Steve Martin) get up, no longer a boy but a middle-aged father of three.
That sets the stage. What’s different about Parenthood is that it shows many of the problems a family can go through by depicting an extended family that has more interaction than most American families. Gil and Karen’s main concern is for their son Kevin who has emotional difficulties and gets too tense at school. We witness their struggle against the public school’s administration who want to label him ‘special’ when we can clearly see he’s a normal child. Then there are his sisters Susan (Harley Kozak) and Helen (Dianne Wiest). Susan is married to a super-genius, Nathan (Rick Moranis) who is grooming their daughter Patty to be a genius as well. He gives her vocabulary flashcards and teaches her complicated algebra and reads Kafka to her, although she’s just four. Helen, meanwhile, is divorced from her husband and left to raise the rebellious and monosyllabic Gary (Joaquin Phoenix f.k.a. Leaf Phoenix) and the love-struck Julie (Martha Plimpton). Then there’s Larry (Tom Hulce) the get-rich-quick-schemer who never worked a day in his life who comes home to a family reunion with a son named Cool, who’s black. His explanation being “I was dating this show girl; she was doing this show Elvis on Ice. Anyway, she shows up with Cool one day and says ‘You take Cool. I shot someone. I have to leave the country. That’s a parent?’ Then of course, the patriarch, Jason Robards, who has some difficult decisions to make along the way.
These sagas play out so cleverly and realistically and everything in this film just works. Gil and Karen refuse to have their son put in special education and they say they’ll take him to a therapist and send him to a private school rather than have him stigmatized. What really works about the meeting is that at first there is finger-pointing but they are also defiant of the public school system, which just doesn’t work. Gil promises to get a second job and his job, getting more clients and trying to work more hours becomes a crucial part of this film. Towards the end of the film after Gil is passed over for a promotion in favor of Phil Richards, a man who is a ghost in this film, we hear about but never see him, who is single and has time to tender to his clients every need; Gil in a fit of rage quits. He comes home and his wife tells him she’s pregnant. This is one of the few films in the 80s that actually deals openly with the issue of abortion. And it’s even more difficult to do in a comedy but it’s very well-handled. We also hear some of Martin’s funniest lines here: “Let’s see how we can screw the fourth one up? Hey, I know, let’s have five, let’s have six, why don’t we have a dozen and pretend they’re donuts?” In the end they have their baby and what’s great is that Kevin does have his shining moment by winning his team a baseball game but it’s not a cure-all he goes on living day by day that won’t permanently fix the problem, just like Gil saving his birthday party didn’t as Karen pointed out, and that’s real.
Susan’s struggle is that she finds no romance in her life anymore and she’s frustrated that Nathan’s only concern is turning Patty into the next Kierkegaard. When she tells him they could go to Mexico over the summer he immediately thinks it’s a great chance for Patty to learn Spanish. Susan’s suggestion that she stays at Gil’s is shot down because he doesn’t like her being there. So when Nathan says we’ll get two rooms, she asks herself “Which one will I be in?” While Gil and Karen go through a crisis with their children and how best to raise them Susan and Nathan’s relationship is on the brink of falling apart. At one point, Nathan finds her diaphragm has holes in it and it starts a major fight because everything is academic with him and you must wait five years between having children. Susan is so frustrated by her relationship with him that she breaks up via flashcards. Yet we see that all she wants is to be wooed when Nathan comes into her classroom where she teaches one day singing their wedding song. At the end of this film, they’re happy and Patty has finally been allowed to be a child which was one of their major arguments.
Helen’s is the most difficult and heartwarming of all the family conflicts overcome in this film. Despite all the seemingly melodramatic events in this film it is most definitely a comedy but a very intelligent and well-constructed one that has something to say. Julie is madly in love with Tod (Keanu Reeves). We’re introduced to her as she’s hiding Tod under her bed. After her mother leaves he comes back out and they start to make love and he takes pictures. We don’t see anything and it’s very tastefully done, but the story takes a great twist. One of the best moves by the writers is the pictures. Julie and Tod go to a one hour photo booth and pick up their photos and see their mother at a work party. They go back to see if there’s another envelope for Buckman and find it was already picked up. When Julie gets home this leads to a fight that has her leave the house and move in with Tod. The fight also has some of the best lines of the film in it. Helen is looking at the picture and says “Woo, here’s one for my wallet.”
Through the whole movie Helen can’t get through to Gary until she breaks into his padlocked room and finds a stash of porn. After Helen talks to Tod she finds out that Gary had felt like a pervert until they had talked. See even the brain-dead boyfriend in this movie serves a purpose? Julie comes home married and her troubles with Tod escalate. Helen goes out with Gary’s science teacher and it all ends with Julie also giving birth. Now many people have overemphasized the “giving birth as a road to happiness theory” in this movie and that’s just rubbish. First, to make a happy ending and have everyone reunited; where better than a maternity ward? Secondly, the births are symbolic of life going on and the families moving on and moving past their problems, and are not to be taken in an overly-political way. Helen, for example, found peace within her family before she and her daughter gave birth.
What also makes this movie different is that there’s not a happy ending for everyone and not everyone sees the light, so to speak. Part of the strength of this film is that Larry never changes. His father has a restored car that Larry drives off with and has appraised because he owes gangsters $20,000. Prior to this encounter Frank, the father, talks to Gil and asks his advice because he knows Gil is “a good father,” and they share their miseries and the most poignant line of the film the father says “It never ends. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30 or 40 or 80, he’ll always be my son, just like Kevin is your son.” Towards the end Larry comes to his dad asking for help paying them off because he blew the money he’d gotten earlier at the track. If he doesn’t come up with the money he’ll die. In a very poignant scene we see Larry waiting by shaking his watch back and forth on his wrist. His father will pay them $1,000 a month but the worst part of it for us is that he’ll have to put off his retirement. Larry is so self-involved that not only has he found another shady business deal, this time in South America, but he almost forgets Cool and his father spares him the trouble and says he’ll take care of him.
In all this drama it’s hard to see the humor in the film so here’s some: When Tod begs Julie to come back after a momentary breakup she says “I wouldn’t live with you if the world was flooded with piss and you lived in a tree,” when Larry comes home Gil’s son Justin asks “Who’s that?” Gil responds “It’s my kid brother, Larry, your uncle. Don’t give him any money.” And the list goes on and on. This is truly a great movie about how insane family life is and how we tend to need each other anyway. This film made nearly $100 million when it was released in 1989 yet, oddly, I’ve heard few people talk about it. This is probably Steve Martin’s best work before he started writing and showing us his intellectual side, not that this film isn’t smart, but it’s no Picasso at the Lapin Agile. This is most definitely one of the most underrated films I’ve ever seen and a quintessential 80s comedy that no one can top.