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‘Parenthood’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 02, 1989

Weaned on the homilies of "Happy Days" and the hominy grits of Mayberry, Ron Howard brings sitcom aphorisms to bear on the sticky-fingered realities of the beamish "Parenthood." A father of four, the director also bases this feel-good family comedy on the bringing up of his own babies. A veritable diaper bag of laughs, it serves best as a sensitive guy's guide to fatherhood.

Steve Martin is the ingratiating master on this merry-go-round, leading an amenable ensemble through the various stages of parenthood -- from first tooth to first pimple to first grandchild. Though wild, crazy and rather sarcastic, Martin is also, hmmm, tender as Everydad Gil Buckman. Neglected by his own dad (Jason Robards), Gil is determined to be a model father to his three kids. He's a long-suffering sort, the worst coach in Little League and a frequent foil of romper room mishaps. When he asks his little girl, "Feel like you're going to throw up?," she does so all over his shirt front. "I'm waiting for her head to spin," he says to his wife, Karen (Mary Steenburgen).

The movie is structured like a suburban "Hannah and Her Sisters," with the families of Gil's two sisters and his prodigal brother Larry (Tom Hulce) quilted into the story. Dianne Wiest is the wistfully funny Helen, a divorcee overwhelmed with caring for her troublesome teens, Julie (Martha Plimpton) and Garry (Leaf Phoenix). Sex is the force that throws them all: While Helen, still moony over her ex-husband, contents herself with battery-operated sex, Julie, popping out like an overripe seedpod, entertains her lover and Garry watches porno movies. "I guess you have these because you're interested in sex ... or filmmaking," says Helen when she finds the movies in his room.

"Parenthood" tells us that it's not just nice to have a man around the house, it's essential. It characterizes Helen's ex-husband as a cad and paints a venal portrait of an off-screen go-getter in competition with Gil for a promotion. The scalawag, a father who won't pay child support, wine-dines clients while Gil adoringly takes his family out for pizza. Clearly Gil is worthier, but like the hero of "It's a Wonderful Life," he must be satisfied with the rewards of self-sacrifice.

By the criteria of his brother-in-law, Nathan (Rick Moranis), Gil is tinker-toying with the destiny of his children. Nathan ignores his wife to tutor his 3-year-old in Kafka, karate, Spanish and algebra. He looks disparagingly on Gil's rambunctious, adorable, show-stealing toddler, who gets his head caught in the lawn furniture and enjoys nothing more than running in circles.

This is the summer of settling scores between selfish fathers and needy sons, be it in a cornfield ballpark, a last crusade, a nutty professor's lab or Buckman's back yard. Gil's father is a crusty sort who doesn't appreciate his conscientious older son. Just like in a Bible story, he loves the irresponsible Larry, an ingratiating gambler who comes home to borrow money with a surprise in tow -- his little son Cool by a black chorus girl. (Ron Howard foolishly revives the condescending "Webster" motif -- little black boy is taken in by a swell white family.)

Larry, and later Cool, gives Frank one more chance at becoming a caring father. And this affords a reconciliation between Gil and Frank, who strikes a sixtysomething note: "It never ends. I'm 64. Larry's 27. He's still my son... ." Throughout, it's the children who change the parents, the parents who suffer the growth pangs, who split at the emotional seams.

Abortion, teenage pregnancy, liberation envy and yuppie greed are among the issues aired in the screenplay by Babaloo Mandell and Lowell Ganz. One of the most earnest exchanges comes between Gil and Karen, a station wagon madonna. When she becomes pregnant again and cannot go back to work as planned, Gil is devastated. "That's the difference between men and women," he says. "Women have choices. Men have responsibilities."

But he relents, and "Parenthood" proves a one-movie baby boomlet. Every conceivable woman is fecund. It was actually surprising that Granny Buckman didn't have a bun in the oven. These '80s archetypes wind up reveling in goochy-goo heaven. Maybe Opie knows best.

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