Paternal Affairs An American Father Faces Death and a Son of Truffaut creates an Hommage BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN DAD Directed by Gary David Goldberg THE LITTLE THIEF Directed by Claude Miller WITH a title like Dad, a film must struggle mightily to avoid patronizing. The pre-credit se quence, a gauzy, wordless pastoral, does not reassure. Neither does the vapid music, the kind that serenades you in an elevator, while descending. Will Dad, which novice feature director Gary David Goldberg adapted from a William Wharton novel, be the 1989 version of On Golden Pond and The Whales of August, films that dote on dotage, that do for senescence what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for negritude? We are introduced to an elderly couple, Bette and Jake Tremont, and there is nothing condescending about their depiction. Olympia Dukakis’s Bette is a compulsive domestic despot, Jack Lemmon’s Jake a 75year-old dodderer dependent on his wife to put sugar in his coffee and toothpaste on his brush. During their ritualistic morning visit to the supermarket, Bette bullies the butcher. When she suffers a heart attack near the dairy case, Jake is perplexed. Their son John is interrupted during a high-powered meeting at his Wall Street investment firm with news of the family emergency, and he immediately flies back to Los Angeles. While Mom is in the hospital terrorizing the nurses, John stays with Dad, teaching him to be independent again. John, who has been divorced for several years, provides detailed instructions for the old man on fixing breakfast, doing laundry, washing dishes and driving a car. Father and son play catch together, and, when Bette returns from the hospital, Jake is a new man. So is her son John, who is playing hooky from Wall Street and learning to appreciate that values are more precious than prices. If this were all to Dad, it would, notwithstanding Lemmon’s utterly compelling portrait, be a mildly sentimental drama about the reconciliation of generations. It conveniently becomes the story of three men and a hospital bed when John’s son Billy, Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio. a college dropout who has been raised by his mother, materializes at Granddad’s. Ted Danson’s John is solicitous and conscientious, though he has ignored his parents and his only child for years. A proud proletarian who notes: “The world is divided into two groups: workers and bosses.” Jake, whose entire career has been clothed in blue collar for Lockheed, proclaims: “I’m a worker.” Like Martin Sheen in Wall Street, an aircraft technician saddened by the fact that son Charlie Sheen has become a corporate raider, even raiding the corporation that employs his old man, Jake cannot understand why John would want to buy companies only in order to close them down. Neither, now, can John. Not much more than a handsome foil to Jake and Bette, John is a Baby Boomer’s idealized alter ego. He regrets his shattered marriage and threadbare filial ties, but there is little evidence of the ambition, selfishness and impatience that produced them. Dad comes alive when Bette returns home and must cope with a newly assertive husband who will no longer submit to her old regime. It enters another dimension of drama when Jake himself must be hospitalized after finding blood in his stool. Goldberg’s script stoops to obligatory jokes about nurses and institutional food, and it shamelessly exploits a good doctor/bad doctor contrast. “You’d be surprised what those older people can take,” says Dr. explicit instructions not to tell Jake he has cancer. The old man cannot take it and goes into shock, but the new physician, Dr. Chad sionate as Santana is heinously callous. However, the elemental scene of John carrying his frail old sire out of a hospital that has reduced him to a mute lump of bones redeems Dad from its mawkish cliches. But it is Lemmon’s dramatic virtuosity that salvages the film from mere virtuousness. Buoyed by the constant devotion of John and Dr. Chad, Jake recovers his health and even regains his youth, becoming so rambunctious and randy that Bette is repulsed. “Dying’s not a sin,” he explains to her. “Not living is.” And the bromide becomes uncommonly good medicine as uttered by Lemmon. Dad reverts at several times to the scene that precedes the credits, the softly focused agrarian idyll. But we eventually learn that this is no sentimental flashback to good old days before the Tremonts were truncated. Instead, it is an alternative, fantasy world that has sustained Jake, diagnosed “a successful schizophrenic,” during decades of Bette’s tyranny. The conclusion to Dad is as inevitable as death, but its deftness is not. “In America,” says Jake to John in the final moments of the film, “anything’s possible if you show up for work.” If you show up for a work called Dad, you might be surprised. Though most film critics are harmless drudges, Francois Truffaut was one who made good; he put aside reviewing to make good films, some of the best in France since World War H. And it was a film critic, Andre Bazin, who salvaged Truffaut, who ran away from home at 11, from a life of petty crime. Bazin befriended the little thief and made him feel more at home in a movie theater than a reformatory. Many Truffaut films, not just the movie Day for Night, are paeans to the power of cinema. And many, including the Antoine Doinel cycle of The 400 Blows, Love at 20, Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, follow the misadventures of a youthful scamp. Before Truffaut died, in 1984, at the age of 52, he was planning a film about a female counterpart to Doinel, a nimble young woman who has only a passing acquaintance with convention. directed by Claude Miller from a screenplay that his wife Annie Miller adapted from Truffaut’s story, is an act of cinematic telepathy. It makes no attempt to deny its paternity. More successful than those periodic attempts to extrapolate Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony from fragmentary scribblings of a dead master, The Little Thief has the iris shots and the panache of echt Truffaut. It is suffused with cinematic references, an hommage that is both true to Truffaut and to the dead director’s own celluloid obsessions. Documentary footage before the credits sets the opening of the film after the Liberation of Paris. We begin in 1950, in a small town in central France, where 16year-old Janine Castang is pilfering from her classmates and from every local merchant. “What the hell do you really want?” asks outraged Uncle Andre who, along with 18 NOVEMBER 24, 1989
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