2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
Parenthood / Bowfinger February 26, 2019
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
screenplay for “Chubby Rain,” a chintzy sci-fi thriller written by an amateurish, continually grinning accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle), he’s convinced that he should use it as the basis for a movie.
He has almost everything he needs to produce it: a budget (though a puny $2,000 or so), a camera operator, a pair of actresses (a dizzy Heather Graham and an over-expressive Christine Baranski), and a crew (entirely encompassed by eager Mexican immigrants). He doesn’t have a lead actor, no: he proudly if hopelessly tried to convince the aggressive action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) to headline, but, alas, sneaking into limos pretending you’re a script runner when you’re not isn’t an effective way to garner a lead. Bowfinger will figure something out. He has before. Though judging from the decrepit Spanish-style bungalow he calls his home base, it’s been a while since his last stroke of luck.
The idea of Bowfinger, eventually, is that, instead of actually hiring Kit, our protagonist and his ragtag team will do the next best thing: ambush the actor, guerilla style, with performers and dialogue from “Chubby Rain” at random locations and times and hope for the best. It doesn’t matter if Kit is dining al fresco, walking downtown with a friend — Bowfinger and his gang might as well be Nardwuar and his surprise attack-prone cohort.
Later, they’ll think they’ve struck gold when they discover that Kit has an identical twin brother named Jiff. Jiff is Kit’s opposite: He’s a braces-faced neurotic who reflects the “nerd” character archetype. Most might consider this is a disappointment, but not our famished-for-success ensemble.
In the meantime, the crew has no idea that they’re actually causing Kit harm in their plotting. In addition to being an egomaniac with a propensity to anonymously flash the Laker Girl Cheerleading Squad (don’t ask me) as a form of self-care, he’s also paranoid and delusional, and attends intense, new-age-style therapy sessions regularly to try to suppress his demons.
Movies about making movies tend to be either romanticized or satirical — either a Day for Night (1973) or a The Player (1992). Rarified is a middle ground. But Bowfinger, which was also written by Martin, seems to find it. Underneath all its pandemonium do I see a movie that captures the mania, determination, and community that you’d think might go into the production of a film so without prospects of victory, with sincere, likably scattershot aplomb.
Like other movies Martin has penned — from 1979’s The Jerk to 1987’s Roxanne — the comedy is clever and frequently uproarious without being vicious. It relies on a friendly brand of humor that might be likened to the Zucker Brothers’ style: mostly carefully harebrained and never averse to a loco sight gag, like a dog running through a parking garage in high heels or an auditioning kiss that lasts 35 seconds longer than necessary. When Martin wraps up his first read of the “Chubby Rain” screenplay, he muses, with a smile, “wow, great script.” One encounters Martin’s work on Bowfinger and might think something similar.
mong the many things I love about Martin is that, however comically distorted a character is, he lends them a dependably refreshing earnestness. Case in point for Parenthood; case in point, too, for Bowfinger (1999), Martin’s fourth collaboration with Frank Oz. In the movie, Martin plays the title character, who is a hapless, Ed Woodian Z-movie producer who, as the film opens, thinks he’s stumbled on his latest project. After reading the
loved to small screens. (See Ferris Bueller, Uncle Buck.) NBC greenlit another reimagining — albeit a looser one — at the end of the aughts. This version proved successful — so much so that its most devoted fans, who either watched most or all of its six seasons, might not even know that it was based on a movie.
That the original Parenthood would work as the foundation of two TV shows is unsurprising. By the time I got to its finale, where all the characters are thrust into happy “endings” I didn’t totally buy, I thought to myself: all of this would work better within the scope of a television show. I didn’t want these characters to wander into a tidy, pretty-finite closer: I felt that they would instead be more suited to be watched on end, us navigating the world with them for a few years or so. This isn’t to say that the movie is great in part because of this notion. It’s to say that two hours is not a sensical running time for this kind of sitcom-ready material. When you have this many characters, this many neuroses to unpack, and this many dramatic obstacles, an orderly wrap-up is discordant. The knot that is the ending cannot convincingly keep all the threads in place.
Parenthood traverses subplots, and occasionally blends them; in common is much of the large ensemble’s lineage. (Most have the Buckman surname.) There is Gil (Steve Martin), a prematurely grey-haired sales exec who is married to the intuitive homemaker Karen (Mary Steenburgen). They have three kids. One, Kevin, is bringing them particular trouble at the moment: he throws fits so often that his school’s principal recommends he be transferred into a special-education program shortly into the first act. Gil worries that he has inherited his father’s aloofness (Jason Robards), and that Kevin's woes are somehow related.
Gil’s older sister, a divorcée named Helen (Dianne Wiest), is professionally successful but frustrated in her personal life. Not only do her romantic prospects seem dim — her children, the pubescent Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, credited here as Leaf Phoenix) and the teenage Julie (Martha Plimpton), are also endlessly agitated. Garry is standoffish and apparently perturbed by his lack of a paternal figure; Julie, who is romantically entwined with the doltish Tod (Keanu Reeves), makes a series of rash relationship decisions Helen either considers thoroughly destructive or learning experiences she should keep out of.
The middle Buckman kid, the prim middle-school teacher Helen (Harley Kozack), has been married to a bespectacled scientist named Nathan (Rick Moranis) for a few years now, and has a daughter with him. But Helen worries that his overemphasis on their girl’s early education (Nathan is the kind of person who would find Sesame Street beneath the tot) is beginning to alienate her from her peers. The youngest, a poodle-haired featherbrain named Larry (Tom Hulce), is a stereotypical black sheep. He’s rarely heard from, and when he finally does become one of the film’s primaries, he shows up out of nowhere, has a “secret” son in tow, and has a putative get-rich-quick scheme to get off his chest.
That we care about these people should count for something, right? Sometimes the Buckmans bug me, given that a great many of their hardships are relatively blasé in the grand scheme of things. A handful of the plot points — most of which are bound to the last act — bug me too. Helen is unhappy in her marriage, and is well aware that the egotistical Nathan is damaging their daughter’s growth, but reasons that things can be patched up if they have another child. Gil irrationally quits his job even though he’s the only source of income. There are more incongruous beats: Gil’s reaction to Kevin potentially having autism is poorly handled — both because of an austere refusal to provide him with what he needs, partially because the possibility is treated as simple inherited fussiness when it very well might not be. Garry’s torment, an effect of his having a deadbeat dad, is only trivially explored despite being a major focus.
Our compassion for and interest in these people must come from the family dynamic, then: the ways these characters interact and appear to understand themselves make sense to us and thus make their antics, however petty or vacant, easy to invest in. I was especially taken with the Helen-centric subplot, though I’m sure this has to do, in part, with how persuasively Wiest portrays a woman who’s trying to do everything she can to keep herself and her kids happy but knows, deep down, that she’s being spread thin. Parenthood also features a particularly affecting performance from Martin: Though his character sometimes has to jump through unbelievable hoops, his usual screwball affectations complement his portrayal of a frazzled, much-better-than-he-realizes father.
arenthood, a sprawling family comedy-drama from 1989, has been rebooted twice for television. A feat, to be certain. The first series premiered on NBC in 1990. Unfortunately, it succumbed before it could stretch out and breathe: it was canceled by the end of its first and only 12-episode season, which is now considered one victim of many in a botched 1990-’91 lineup that attempted to bring other movies the culture