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‘Parents’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1989

Childhood may not be a permanent affliction, but for Michael, the young hero in "Parents," it's a kind of endless waking nightmare. Michael, played by Bryan Madorsky, looks perilously frail, with narrow shoulders and charcoal shadows under his eyes. He has a haunted look, as if he'd spent most of his life huddled in a dark closet, fending off demons.

The monsters in this case are Michael's folks, Nick and Lily (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt). At first glance, they seem to be model parents. Grilling huge hunks of beef on the outdoor grill, they're preternaturally chipper, in that wholesome, thoroughly plastic manner of '50s television families. But although his cardigans look as if they came straight out of Robert Young's closet, there's something malevolent in Nick's smiley-faced bonhomie. You can see why Michael is afraid Daddy's gonna gobble him up.

"Parents" is a true oddity -- a comedy about suburban cannibalism. Directed by Bob Balaban, it's an Eisenhower-era cartoon about sexual horror in which all the jokes have cracked, Freudian echoes. "Parents" is Balaban's first feature -- he's earned a considerable reputation as an actor -- and it's not a major one, but in places it's almost shockingly potent. And shockingly funny.

Black comedies aren't usually this atmospheric; "Blue Velvet" was an exception, and though the laughs in "Parents" are more up front, the two films create a similar impression. Both are about what's going on behind all that meatloaf and squeaky-clean linoleum. The cannibalism here stands in for a mother lode of Oedipal weirdness. Seen through Michael's eyes, the world of adults is salacious and corrupt in some terrifying, subterranean way. They're up to something filthy, he can just sense it. It's all in the way they eye each other at their bridge parties and over dinner, in all the secret glances and code words and sinister rituals.

From Nick and Lily's perspective, Michael is all that's wrong with their picture-perfect life. Why couldn't they have a normal kid who pounces on his leftovers with the hungry gusto that they do? Little Michael's the worst kind of weirdo -- a picky eater -- but how can he dig in? His deepest fear is that the sausages crackling in the skillet aren't quite, well, kosher. (And, it's true, they're not like any sausages you've ever seen.) He's swamped with guilt over his parents' dirty sins, so much so that when he goes to bed, he dreams he's being sucked into a spinning whirlpool of blood.

These are powerful images, and if Balaban's cast weren't as skillful as it is, the comedy might be overshadowed. As Michael's father, Quaid uses his hulking features to create a sense of piggy menace. Even his flesh seems to hang threateningly. Quaid creates the perfect mix of sketch comic and character actor; he fully inhabits Balaban's satirical world. And Hurt is just as good. Her Lily looks as if her face might break if she smiled any harder. And every crease in her poofy dirndls seems razor-edged.

Two of the film's smaller roles are the real gems, though. As the guidance counselor at Michael's school, Sandy Dennis looks as if she had a crew member spin her around a few times before the camera rolled. She's so dizzy it's all she can do to keep her eyeballs from pinwheeling in her head. Just the sight of her makes you giggle. And Sheila, a blond giantess who befriends Michael at school by proclaiming that her parents are aliens, is equally bracing. The young actress who plays her, Juno Mills-Cockell, has the natural panache of a born wisecracker, and it's a kick to see how confident and unfettered she is in front of the camera.

The movie spins crazily around its macabre central metaphor, and for most of the film, Balaban sustains the ambiguity in Michael's suspicions -- we never know exactly what's real and what's imagined. However, about three-quarters of the way through, the director and his screenwriter, Christopher Hawthorne, make a serious miscalculation. All the fears that had been insinuated and submerged become explicit, and the movie degenerates into a dumb horror show. Balaban's filmmaking, which had been sharp up until then, falls apart too. Still, even with its collapse, "Parents" is remarkably accomplished for a first outing. It's good enough to make you wish desperately that it had hung together.

"Parents" is rated R and contains some provocative, though not explicit, material.

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