In retrospect, Parenthood marks the transition between Steve Martin’s early, funnier films and his later, not as funny ones that no one likes as much. Prior to Parenthood the silver-haired genius gave us The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Afterwards he gave us Bowfinger, Father Of The Bride and Sgt. Bilko. There’s a marked difference in quality and, depending on your point of view, Parenthood was either the last great Steve Martin film, or the beginning of the decline.
Parenthood tells the story of Gil Buckman (Martin) and his extended family. Gil is having problems at work, not helped by assorted worries at home, not least behavioural problems with one of his children, and a newly pregnant wife (Mary Steenburgen). His brother-in-law (Rick Moranis) is obsessed with turning his daughter into a genius, something not appreciated by his wife. Martin’s other sister (Dianne Wiest) is a divorced single parent, dealing with a pubescent son (a very young Joaquin Phoenix), a rebellious teenage daughter (Martha Pimpleton) and her boyfriend (Reeves).
All these storylines are told with a mixture of comedy and pathos, which proves a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid. The comedic scenes are, by and large, a great success, mainly down to Martin. The children’s birthday party scene – with Martin dressed as a cowboy and fashioning intestines out of balloons – is as funny as anything in his filmic repertoire. Likewise, his impromptu dance at a baseball game. Moranis is more restrained, but does get one hilarious routine, serenading his wife with the Carpenters’ ‘Close to you’.
Whilst director Ron Howard handles the comedic scenes well, he’s less confident with the drama. Up until this point in his career he was best known as a comedy director, with only Cocoon venturing anywhere near seriousness. And it shows. There’s a mawkish, melodramatic quality to the drama that sits awkwardly with the comedy. A subplot about Martin’s wayward brother (Tom Hulce) – involving his gambling problems and an unwanted child - probably fares worst, offering neither laughs nor any kind of dramatic tension.
Although it may be somewhat heavy-handed, there are truths here that any parent will recognise. Be it pushing your kids too hard; awkward conversations about sex; realising that you can’t always protect your children; or the loss of any semblance of order to your life once you become a parent, Parenthood offers a broad snapshot of the sheer weight and chaos involved in having a family. It may not have any earth-shattering revelations about family life, but it offers just enough laughs to forgive the frequent lapses into sentimentality. Besides, it ends with the late, great Jason Robards ripping down the ‘No smoking’ sign in a hospital, so the extended family can all enjoy a cigar. Now that’s something you’ll never see in a film nowadays.
PARENTHOOD / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RON HOWARD / SCREENPLAY: LOWELL GANZ, BABALOO MANDAL / STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, DIANNE WIEST, RICK MORANIS, JASON ROBARDS / RELEASE DATE: 28TH MARCH