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‘Parenthood’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 04, 1989

Apart from an ending that doesn't provide solutions so much as change the movie's diaper, Ron Howard's "Parenthood," with its multi-cast of talents (Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards Jr., Tom Hulce, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis . . .), is punchy entertainment for the open-minded family, the kind that realizes Home Sweet Home is -- well, an interesting idea.

Or that realizes, as Steenburgen reminds fellow parent Martin, that "life is messy."

There's nothing messy about the writing by Howard, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Howard also directed Ganz-Mandel's "Night Shift," "Splash" and "Gung Ho"), though, in this multilevel "Cousin, Cousine"-like drama, Ganz's sitcom stints with "Happy Days," "The Odd Couple" and "Laverne and Shirley" occasionally reveal themselves. But only occasionally.

Most of the time, the punch lines are unobtrusively crafted (and very often, bitingly funny), so you don't feel like a couch potato for laughing; where things are smarmy, the performers revive the dramatic honesty, particularly everyfather Martin, who perseveres through the spiritual brutalities of parenthood (Little League angst, birthday party trouble-shooting, emotionally distressed kids -- and forget making partner at the office) with Sisyphean, mugging tenacity.

Actually, pluralist Howard gives just about everyone (and that's quite a few) a chance to shine at least once, comically or dramatically. Martin gets the lion's share, but "Parenthood's" laugh-share encompasses neurotic, success-pushing father Moranis (who teaches his preschool daughter everything from martial arts to Kafka's "The Penal Colony"); eternally squabbling high-school lovebirds Reeves and Plimpton; the little kid who likes to put a pail over his head and head-butt the kitchen wall; and Hulce, Robards's ne'er-do-well prodigal son who, after a long absence, greets his grandmother with "Grandma, you're shorter."

"I'm shrinking," she replies. At a loss for words, Hulce laughs nervously and says, "Bummer!"

Perhaps "Parenthood" works so well because Howard and Co. dabble in the dark side of family happiness and the lighter side of family darkness. When a power outage prompts a scramble for the flashlight in Wiest's house, for example, someone discovers another battery-operated, much more personal Wiest possession that proves as embarrassingly funny as it is revealing of this divorced mother's lonely existence. This and other insightful surprises keep "Parenthood" from lapsing into sitcom hell, where people are well behaved and their problems solved between commercials. Just remember to duck during the concessionary finale lest a low-flying stork hits you too.

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