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‘Parents’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1989

In Bob Balaban's wittily gruesome "Parents," the Cold War hangs like a mushroom cloud over little Michael Laemle's childhood. But there's something even scarier than atomic bombs and communist invasions: his mom and dad.

Mom (Mary Beth Hurt) is a housewife-turned-zombie who lives for drunken bridge games, and Dad (a grimly cherubic Randy Quaid) works cheerily for a defoliant company called Toxico. Mainstreet USA is the '50s From Hell and Daddy Quaid is the guy holding the trident -- or at least the barbecue tongs. And he wants to feed Michael (Bryan Madorsky) the kind of meat that used to say "Have a nice day."

Another year, another cannibal movie, sure. But Balaban (until now a low-profile character actor) kneads that hackneyed meat into a well-sustained, Leave-It-to-Cleaver world of parental tyranny, nuclear-basement angst and, uh, meat grinding.

As the '80s are to many of us, so the reality-oblivious, Commie-bashing '50s are Michael's waking nightmare. Adults seem to be in an evil trance, existing only to pollute the world, repress childhood and eat each other. Quaid's jowls swoop malevolently close to the camera (and thus Michael) to tell him, "Other people are watching -- at school, home, maybe in the bathroom." Mommy Hurt watches her child with a somnambulistic kindliness (somewhere between June Cleaver and Nancy Reagan) as she compulsively bites fingernails -- not her own, but her son's. Michael's only relief comes from schoolmate Juno Mills-Cockle, who claims to be from the moon, and Sandy Dennis as a wonderfully ditsy, chain-smoking social worker charged with figuring Michael out.

This is a comedy. Honest.

At least until it self-destructs. Possibly under self-imposed (or Vestron Pictures-imposed) pressure to create a whiz-bang ending, Balaban's and screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne's finale tumbles into the bloody pit (actually, basement) of slasher movies. They suddenly seem content enough to have minced in cannibalism with camp.

But what camp! Decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo, art director Andris Hausmanis and costume designer Arthur Rowsell dress things up with appropriately macabre tastelessness (check out the "modern" scheme on the Laemles' dining room drapes or Mom's zip-up evening dress). The performers are uniformly good (in a hypnotized sort of way), and cinematographers Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon watch the group trance from appropriately distorted angles -- from low, child's-eye view to overhead "Psycho" perspective.

"Parents" is an impressive debut, and certainly the most provocative new release around town. You may leave this movie realizing how dark your childhood actually was. You may also leave a vegetarian.

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