Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Parenthood (Part 13 of 17)

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.

Parenthood (1989, Universal)

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.

Parenthood (1989, Universal)

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.”


Parenthood (1989, Universal)

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.


Parenthood (1989, Universal)

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.

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My Year in Film: 1994

First, a tip of the hat to @bobfreelander who was the first I saw doing retroactive year-in-review posts and why I will do a few. Now, while I will be able to contextualize my picks to an extent I cannot be as anal retentive as I wanted to. Ideally, I would’ve loved to say I saw these movies in the year in question and these later, but I cannot with any degree of accuracy. The reason this matters to me is that I was 13 to 14 when these films were being released. Now I, unlike many students around me when I was in school, have been able to exonerate many films I saw before studying films formally from over-analysis. So while many are getting a pass or some sentimental value attached to them I shall not disown them, they are still me. Much in the way I am no longer making BAM Awards for years where I didn’t actively track releases, I am also not changing winners as I did on rare occasions in my teens. This list like those awards are a snapshot, time can reshape one affection for a film, whether heightening or lessening it but the films that mark that year for you mentally remain pretty much identical.

I start with 1994 in part because it was a great year for me in general, I was out of sixth grade and into 7th and 8th and I rather enjoyed Junior High where using your mental faculties to achieve a heightened sense of immaturity was rewarded, at least amongst my circle of friends. Sports-wise it was a great year as my faith in my beloved New York Rangers was rewarded, I knew it’d be a championship season in pre-season and it was. Then not too long after I saw Brazil win its 3rd World Cup while visiting my family.

Not that movies lagged that far behind, if at all. Many of these films, whether I saw them during the calendar year or soon thereafter, have been favorites for many years.

The films are in no particular order.

1. Satantango

Sátántangó (Kino Lorber)

I’ve been meaning to give this film an annual viewing but at 7+ hours in length it is very hard to schedule. I first heard about this film in college when it wasn’t readily available on DVD but I hunted it down. Having it was like having gold such that I even loaned it to a professor once. It’s an impressive example of story-telling muscle-flexing as it goes back and forth in time with many events repeating at intersecting points of perspective, as we follow characters and see certain events over through their eyes. Its ending is a shocking as such a minimalist ending can be and gives me goosebumps every time.

2. Milk Money

Milk Money (Paramount)

Here’s one I could’ve seen in ’94 but didn’t. In a world where I didn’t have a computer or access to the IMDb I couldn’t confirm my casting misconceptions, namely at the time I confused one of the girls in a quick shot in the trailer with Anna Chlumsky. I did eventually see it on HBO and this was where my admiration for Melanie Griffith originated and I hunted down practically everything she did after seeing it. Now hooker with a heart of gold stories weren’t new to me even then but the context and the slightly verboten yet laissez-fair handling of this one along with its outcome are a major part of what won me over.

3. Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors (Fine Line Features)

When the Independent Film Channel (IFC) first hit the airwaves I watched it practically every night for a week, and as an atypical teen movie fan I craved something different and I got it. This is a harrowing tale of a Maori family in New Zealand. I’m not even sure if I’ve even revisited it. Even if I have it could surely qualify as a film you only need to see once.

4. Disclosure

Disclosure (Warner Bros.)

This is a great film. Yes, it’s true Michael Douglas gets Michael Douglas-ed in it, if you’ve seen enough of his films you get what I mean, but sexual harassment was a hot button issue in the country as there was a politically correct renaissance about and to flip expectations to have an actress like Demi Moore, in likely her best role, in that position make it a compelling drama.

5. The War

The War (Universal)

For those of you who may have been asleep during the 90s and didn’t know, Elijah Wood was one of the most prodigious child actors who ever graced the silver screen. This film of his is his most criminally under-seen. It’s a great allegorical tale wherein Wood does his most serious work as a youth but he’s supported by Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham and Lexi Randall. If you’ve never seen this film do yourself the favor.

6. Little Giants

Little Giants (Warner Bros.)

G-Men! OK, if you read my intro you probably surmised I’m a native New Yorker, however, that’s not the only reason that this film makes the list, there are some others. It is smart that this film does play into actual NFL rivalries and takes the Bad News Bears motif to football but there’s some more to it. Part of it has to do with seeing Ed O’Neill in a movie and perfectly cast, it being one of Rick Moranis’ last theatrically released films plays into it some. Yet it’s also about the team, which plays into the appeal of any underdog story, and also it may be the most effective rivalries in terms of having certain off-the-field relationships with the opposition.

7. A Feast at Midnight

A Feast at Midnight (Live Entertainment)

This is a film that I found a few years later. One thing that’s refreshing about it is that it’s a tale of boarding school mischief that doesn’t get too dark. Essentially the boys at this school are tired of their crap food. They learn to cook and bake and sneak about in the dead of night to have proper feasts. More comedy and tension are added by Christopher Lee who plays the headmaster who they refer to as a dinosaur and many scenes play out as homages to Jurassic Park, which are just brilliantly done.

8. Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street (Sony Pictures Classics)

If I recall correctly this was an impromptu purchase. I typically used my weekend allowance to take a bus to the multiplex and then to the mall after to pick up another film. This was likely one of them. It didn’t lead me to instantly pursue more Chekhov but it was the spark that opened the door for my appreciation of his work.

9. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before? I didn’t see it in 1994 as it was slightly before I discovered Stephen King, and my life forever changed. I saw it later and I saw it before I read it, and I learned Frank Darabont is a King adaptation master, and this is his best work.

10. North

North (Columbia Pictures)

Here’s the section of the list where I’ll place a couple of movies you likely hate and I hope you’ll do me the kindness of scrolling past them if you do hate them rather than closing your browser window. For those of you who are still with me, I can even understand how you can dislike North and It’s Pat, the latter much more than the former. However, with this one I really don’t get how some claim its one of the worst things ever. Yes, it’s another Elijah Wood title and while here he’s more comedic this one really does have more to do with the concept than him or the supporting all-star cast. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and yes, based on the tale you know where it’ll likely end up, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective fantasy in my estimation.

11. It’s Pat

It's Pat (Touchstone Pictures)

I get it on this one, OK? Pat is gross, that’s what makes the sketch funny for those who do think it’s funny. I’d say this is likely the most avoided and reviled SNL-sketch based feature of them all, I will not claim that it’s the best, but I do like it. Julia Sweeney is a very underrated comedienne and this is her best character.

12. The Little Rascals

The Little Rascals (Universal Pictures)

I can’t remember if I ever consciously wanted to see this movie but having younger siblings it was acquired on home video and I ended up watching it many times and I ended up liking it quite a bit also. Looking back you could almost draw a parallel between this and The Three Stooges in as much as those actors were The Little Rascals, so theoretically a remake shouldn’t work but it was cast so well and the story was very much in the spirit of the original with minor updates such that it works very well.

13. Airheads

Airheads (20th Century Fox)

When you rely on cable television for your viewing you can end up watching things over and over whether you want to or not. An example or not would be Empire Records, I have no idea what convinced me that seeing it over and over would change my opinion of it. It just kept getting suckier. This I liked right away and wanted to see many times over, it’s just a hilarious and well executed premise.

14. The Client

The Client (Warner Bros.)

Joel Schumacher can be very divisive and I certainly cannot defend all of his films. However, those that I can I will tooth and nail. This is one of them. I watched The Client many years later and it has in it perhaps one of the tensest first acts I can recall. It doesn’t let up much from there.

15. Speed

Speed (20th Century Fox)

Here’s a film that’s become a bit of a punching bag in hindsight. I will grant there is a level of silliness to it, however, if you get past the whole 50 MPH thing, (which I have) it rather works. Also, one must bear in mind that this was really Sandra Bullock’s breakout role so she was new to us and about to be beloved by many. Also, this is Keanu many roles before we saw that being Keanu is about the extent of his range.

16. Trading Mom

Trading Mom (Trimark Pictures)

This is a film that it took me a while to track down, eventually it debuted on cable. My willingness to see it was mostly due to Anna Chlumsky’s involvement. It would be a great double-feature with North as there are similar themes to it, Wanting to Change Parents but Realizing Yours Are the Best, however, it also features a great performance by Sissy Spacek in many incarnations. Its a more down-to-earth and stripped-down version of the aforementioned premise that still works rather well.

17. Serial Mom

Serial Mom (Savoy Pictures)

I’ve seen this movie a lot of times but none very recently. This could be John Waters at his demented best. This is where I not only learned a rule of fashion but also got “Day Break” stuck in my head for life. Kathleen Turner is incredible in this.

18. The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy (PolyGram)

I avoided this film for a long time for a number of reasons. I like Coens films when I watch them but my viewership of their filmography is very incomplete, the title and description also made it seem like it couldn’t be that interesting. It’s perhaps the best argument for just watching the movie. I love it.

19. Major League II

Major League II (Warner Bros.)

As opposed to the sequel later in this list this is one that I think I like more than the original. It’s sillier, funnier and doesn’t take the high road in the ending but those are all things I like about it. Plus, taking the approach that this team overachieved and now rests on its laurels and struggles is pretty smart and true to life.

20. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Warner Bros.)

It’s a very simple discussion when dealing with Jim Carrey: Either you love the over-the-top end of his comedic repertoire or you hate it. I love it and Ace Ventura is the prime example of this facet of his gifts.

21. Trevor

Trevor

This film I first saw only last year. It’s the only short on this list. It’s almost more important for its significance than the film itself for this film is what spawned The Trevor Project. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that it really was ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of a hot button issue. It deals with a youth struggling with his sexuality and is suicidal. It won an Oscar after it was made and was re-introduced in a TV special hosted by Ellen DeGeneres but now it has a third incarnation as The Trevor Project is one of the most notable and active NGOs in the nation right now. Granted its a film buoyed by its message and its significance but few films, especially shorts, have this kind of track record so far as reemergence and staying power are concerned.

22. Menino Maluquinho- O Filme

Menino Maluquinho - O Filme (Filmes Europa)

Below you will see another comic character that I love come to life. I saw this a few years after the release of the film. This film benefits from the fact that though this character is featured in Brazilian comic strips he originated in graphic novels and this film tackles the story told in the first of those books for the most part and that streamlines things and makes the interpretation very pure.

23. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump (Paramount)

This is another film that has become somewhat of a punching bag over the years. Taking the visceral arguments out of the equation (for I do like and connect to the film) the significance of this film in certain cinematic is in fact that it breaks rules about a passive protagonist, in that it employs one, and it works very, very well. You’d be hard pressed to find many other situations where it would but here no doubt it does. I predicted Tom Hanks would win the Oscar on the eve of the show when asked, and not only was I right but I was pleased. It’s another question of time. Hanks has become more interested in producing and has become an Oscar ceremony staple but I’d never question his merits in the roles that won him statues.

24. Little Odessa

Little Odessa (Fine Line Features)

Here is another IFC special. I did revisit this one at least once. It’s a tremendously underrated film and features a great turn by Edward Furlong before his depressing decline.

25. Richie Rich

Richie Rich (Warner Bros.)

Macaulay Culkin is precisely 364 days older than I am, so his stardom was kind of a big deal for me growing up for he was, and is, essentially my age. Furthermore, add the fact that here he was interpreting one of my favorite comics characters of all time and this was going to be a must see for me. Now, here’s an example similar to one you’ll see below where the star and the involvement in a project is more significant to than the film, for I definitely nitpick this one and the follow ups (though they be Culkin-less) it wasn’t an interpretation completely without merit, I did like a lot of it.

26. Blue Chips

Blue Chips (Paramount)

Another cable special and another I’ve given many viewings. Nick Nolte is, as he tends to be, brilliant in this film. However, what really elevates this film for me is the great examination of the moralistic quagmire that amateur athletics are. Nolte’s confession speech while rather unrealistic in a real context, as sports fans know all too well, allow for the film to really expose the inevitability of star athletes getting perks and incentives to go to certain colleges.

27. My Girl 2

My Girl 2 (Columbia Pictures)

Alright, no My Girl 2 is not a great film, there are a few entries on this list I wouldn’t call great. As I mentioned in my introduction that’s not quite the point of this post. It was a film that was overly delayed, in my estimation, and brought a new writer into the fold but the fact of the matter is it’s the sequel to what was at the time my favorite movie ever, and a film I still have a great affection for, so that makes this notable. It’s a film I do pick nits with endlessly but the fact that it matters to me cannot be denied.