There used to be a clear distinction between the way movies and television dealt with emotional issues. The big screen was a place for dramatizing mythic dilemmas on a grand scale. Television tended to mirror familiar experience— most intimately in the family sitcom.
But the distinction has become increasingly blurred, and in a new movie titled Dad it nearly disappears. Dad is the first feature written and directed by Gary David Goldberg, the creator and executive producer of the sitcom Family Ties, which vaulted Michael J.
Fox to fame and aired its final, mistyeyed episode last season. The movie stars Ted Danson, from the sitcom Cheers, as the son of a dying father played by Jack Lemmon. Dad is a situation drama almost guaranteed to trigger tears—and a few smiles— among those who have had to deal with a parent’s terminal illness. But in the end, its emotional impact is buffered by reassurance. And the result is more therapeutic than dramatic.
Based on the 1981 novel by William Wharton, Dad deals with heart disease, cancer, senility and death—all in a positive light. Jake (Lemmon) is a doddering 75-year-old retiree who has lost the ability to take care of himself.
He lives with his wife, Bette (Olympia Dukakis), a devoted but domineering woman who is slowly mothering him to death. She puts the toothpaste on his toothbrush, the sugar in his coffee and the butter on his morning sweet roll.
One day, Bette has to sit down in the freezer bin at the supermarket as she suffers a mild heart attack. While she recuperates at the hospital, their son John (Danson), a high-powered executive, takes time off from work to move in with his father. John is appalled to discover how dependent Jake has become. Tackling the problem with managerial tenacity, he tries to make the old man self-sufficient. Jake learns the simple pleasures of sorting laundry, waxing floors, making breakfast. Father and son renew their bond by playing games of bingo and catch. And Jake rediscovers his sense of humor. “I know what it means to be old,” he says. “It means that
most people would rather you be dead.” When Bette returns from the hospital, she does not appreciate her husband's sudden appetite for independence. But she barely has time to register her dissatisfaction before another crisis rocks the family. Jake has to be hospitalized—with a bladder ailment that proves to be cancer. The diagnosis sends him into severe psychological trauma. And while
John struggles to repair the damage, he also tries to mend a frayed relationship with his own son, a restless teen sympathetically portrayed by Ethan Hawke.
Unfortunately, Dorf reaches its peak of emotional intensity midway through the movie, with Jake’s graphically depicted deterioration. From then on, the drama seems devoted to
helping the audience recuperate. Briefly rejuvenated by what a psychiatrist terms “successful schizophrenia,” Jake shows signs of recovery. He jogs, he wears funny clothes and, to his wife’s horror, he rediscovers his sex drive. It is all very cute—and uncomfortably reminiscent of 1985’s Cocoon, in which senior citizens chance upon an elixir of youth.
The attempt to sweeten a sad ending undermines the realism of a movie that, after all, manages to talk clinically about cancer of the bladder. Lemmon, however, goes above and beyond the call of duty. The 64-year-old actor shed 30 lb. to convey the frailty of a sick man 11 years older than he is. Almost unrecognizable under elaborate makeup, he gives the kind of bravura performance that seems tailor-made for an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, an acidtongued Dukakis makes the best of her unsympathetic role. And as John’s sister, Annie, Kathy Baker stands around looking weepy and helpless. Bystanders in a father-son buddy
movie, the women only get in the way.
For his part, Danson is like a block of granite on wheels. His character wages a heroic fight to rescue his father from an overbearing wife and a bad doctor. Presumably, he undergoes a transformation—from uncaring businessman to loving son. But when it comes time to express a twinge of empathy, Danson looks as if he would rather be back behind the bar on the set of Cheers. His features seem incapable of expressing emotion. And that is the most frustrating aspect of a movie that is clearly aimed at Danson’s generation—the baby boomers guiltily wondering how to manage aging parents.
Goldberg’s conscientious script expresses frustration with the coldblooded bureaucracy of hospital care. It captures the awkwardness of father-son relationships. And it contrasts the privilege of a yuppie overachiever with the sacrifice of a working-class father who, as John points out, “got up every day of his life and went to a job he didn’t like.” The son of a post-office worker from Brooklyn, N.Y., Goldberg says that he infused the Wharton story with elements of his own experience. “I thought my father was a heroic figure,” said the film-maker. “He worked all his life in a job he didn’t like so his family could prosper.”
Dad glows with the sort of poignant moments and telling details that made Family Ties more than a funny sitcom. The director has not escaped the coyness of his sitcom roots—or the syn-
thetic influence of his close friend Steven Spielberg, one of the movie’s executive producers. But he has taken on a daunting challenge—and performed the unlikely feat of turning palliative care into Hollywood entertainment.
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