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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 27, 1989


Gary David Goldberg
Jack Lemmon;
Ted Danson;
Olympia Dukakis;
Kathy Baker;
Kevin Spacey;
Ethan Hawke
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Somewhere near the middle of Gary David Goldberg's "Dad," Jake Tremont is about to go into surgery. He's 75 and he's scared and, feeling that he might have only these last few moments left to live, he wants to make some peace with his son, John, who is standing by his bedside.

"I see men nowadays," Jake says. "They hug. I don't think we've ever hugged."

Not too late to start, is the spirit of the son's reply. And the two men embrace.

Now am I the only one alive for whom this is a nightmare encounter? Who feels warmed and fuzzied to within an inch of his life?

"Dad" is a melodramatic plumbing of the relationship between two generations of fathers and sons, and it runs through nearly the entire gamut of emotionally loaded issues, from infirmity and senility to reconciliation and death. What isn't explored through the relationship between the son, John (Ted Danson), and his father (Jack Lemmon) is grappled with by John and his son, Billy (Ethan Hawke), a university student whom he almost never sees.

Lemmon plays a retired aeronautics worker, and Danson is his immensely successful stock-trading son who returns home, to his old house and his aged parents, when his mother, Bette (Olympia Dukakis), suffers a heart attack. Her illness is more devastating to Jake than it is to her. Over the years, Bette has imposed a rigid routine on her husband, so rigid, in fact, that from the minute he gets up to the moment he goes to bed, he does almost nothing for himself. Even his toothbrush is prepared and waiting for him by the sink each morning.

Though the outer aspect of this action is benign and loving, the impulse underneath is nearly fascistic. Bette is more Jake's commandant than his wife, and her relentless, rote approach to life has caused him to become a kind of dim automaton, old beyond his years.

As traumatic as it is, Bette's illness becomes a second chance for Jake. When John arrives, he's shocked by his dad's deterioration and, realizing that his mother will no longer be able to care for him as she has, attempts to help him find a way to take care of himself.

The film, which Goldberg adapted from the novel by William Wharton, focuses first on the relationship between these two men, neither of whom has paid much attention to the other for years. There's something moving in the way Danson looks at his father as he tries to come to terms with the diminished stature of the man.

But when Jake starts responding to John's new regime -- doing the dishes, cooking and washing up for himself -- he is shamelessly transformed into a cute, geriatric toy. (They even put him in a tractor cap.) During the course of Jake's rehabilitation, he has his driver's license renewed, plays bingo, and begins to remember that there is more to life than clipping coupons and conking out in front of the tube. In the process, father and son rediscover that "Field of Dreams" thing -- the bond between them that both thought was ruptured and gone forever. And how do they know for sure that they've gotten the old magic back?

They play catch.

If there is a button to push that elicits a cheap, mawkish emotion, "Dad" pushes it. This is not to suggest that the film is indifferently made. It is a mercilessly effective bit of movie making, skillfully crafted and sure of its marks.

Nor does it deny that the film touches on very real and very potent issues. But touch on issues is all "Dad" does. In its harrowing middle section, the film rambles through Jake's recovery from the dementia he lapses into, as when his insensitive doctor (J.T. Walsh) goes against John's wishes and tells him he has cancer. He's lost, reduced to a quivering mass hiding under his bed, beyond the help of his doctors and his family.

Then, all of a sudden, he's better, up and about and more chipper than before, leaving us to wonder what the preceding nightmare was building toward. John, who was intending to stay for only a couple of days, has instead set up headquarters for an extended campaign. And what a wonderful job he must have that he can take this time off to tend to his long-neglected family feelings. But what the movie never deals with are the tensions that might have driven John to distance himself from his family in the first place.

Ostensibly, the movie is about how parents and children, particularly fathers and sons, resolve their natural wounds and resentments. But what's there to resolve here? When John's sister, Annie (Kathy Baker, in a role that wastes her talent), asks for his help, he gives it freely, without hesitation or conflict. He's there, hugging and nurturing, as if he were daisy-fresh from a feelings workshop at Esalen.

The performances aren't nearly as cloying as they might be. With Jack Lemmon in the role, you might well expect the worst, but he is uncharacteristically restrained; aside from some unobtrusive makeup and a shaved pate, he underplays the physical side of his performance and, at least in the first section, doesn't use Jake's frailty to play on our sympathies. For this reason, his work is credible, even laudable.

The role being what it is, you're likely to hear other adjectives attached to it; my guess is he'll get a nomination. The same goes for Dukakis, who puts a tincture of venom in nearly every one of her lines. She's wickedly funny, and in the movie's second half, when flush with the joy of living Jake becomes insufferably jolly, her eye-rolling cynicism is a tonic. The movie's other big role is Danson's, and he's not terrible in it. There are places, even, where you appreciate the lightness of his approach, and his lack of depth almost becomes a virtue. For the rest, he's competent and dull. Good hair, though.

Nothing in "Dad" moves below the surface. When the inevitable tragedies come, they take their expected forms. And because we have at least some susceptibility and human feeling, we give the expected response. What we are responding to, though, is not so much the film as the issues it raises. In that sense, it acts as a trigger to our feelings about our own families, our own mothers and fathers. Having put us in contact with the real thing, the movie nearly vanishes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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