Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 18, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1997)

11. Fathers’ Day

Ivan Reitman spent the first half of the nineties making one popular comedy after another. Whether or not you’re a fan of the films, “Kindergarten Cop,” “Dave,” and “Junior” all made money. “Fathers’ Day” ended that successful streak. Reviews were largely negative. The movie apparently cost 85 million dollars to make but only grossed 28 million domestically. “Fathers’ Day” should’ve been a sure thing. A remake of a well-liked French film, “Les Comperes,” the project brought together Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, two of the biggest comedy stars of the decade. Crystal’s career would never truly recover. Yet is “Fathers’ Day” really that bad?

Jack is a successful lawyer. Dale is a manic-depressive writer. On the same day, both receive a phone call from Collette, a girl each man was intimate with back in college. Collette separately tells Jack and Dale that they fathered her child, Scott. Scott has recently gone missing, chasing after a girl. At first unaware of the other, Jack and Dale go off looking for their boy. Soon, the two cross paths, each uncertain of who is actually Scott’s father. Misadventures ensue.

Fatherhood is a premise Ivan Reitman has touched on before. His previous film was, after all, “Junior.” Parental anxiety boil inside “Kindergarten Cop” as well. And, least we forget, Peter Venkman learning to become a dad in “Ghostbusters II.” (Related: Ivan Reitman’s son, Jason, would have his biggest hit with “Juno,” another story about impending parenthood.) Parenthood and kids are obviously topics ripe with comedic and dramatic potential. “Fathers’ Day” is not an especially deep movie, mostly using its premise as set-up for lots of wacky shenanigans. However, even a film this thin manages to scrap together some decent pathos, concerning the feelings the men have for their potential son. This is most evident in the last act, when both guys happily accept Scott as their boy.

After many ups and downs in the eighties, the “City Slickers” movies made Billy Crystal a genuine box office draw in the nineties. The archetypal Crystal character is an East Coast mensch who is tossed into some kooky environment. “Fathers’ Day” does not strayed too far from this archetype. Crystal’s Jack is a hot-shot lawyer, who usually has a bead on any given situation. A reoccurring gag has Crystal headbutting people any time a scenario gets too hot. Crystal is amusing, producing chuckles when fumbling through a nutty position and is even better when keeping a cool head in crazier scenes.

Long time Robin Williams fans will be very uncomfortable going into “Fathers’ Day.” Williams’ character is introduced putting a loaded gun in his mouth, preparing to commit suicide. Holy shit, talk about harsher in retrospective. As with Crystal, Williams plays a part he’s accustomed to. Dale has a manic personality, prone to emotional outburst. He cries with little warning. While driving, he slams on the break suddenly due to a serial fear of hitting someone. When totally unleashed, Robin Williams can be intolerable. Some scenes in “Fathers’ Day” pushes Williams’ manic humor too far, such as a montage of him trying on different outfits and imaging his first meeting with his newly discovered son. Yet there’s enough honest heart to Williams’ performance, such as when he tells Crystal how much he needs his son, to keep “Fathers’ Day” from being all hollow shtick.

“Fathers’ Day” was undoubtedly sold on Williams and Crystal being on-screen together. Despite never making a movie together before, Crystal and Williams had worked together many times during the Comic Relief charity specials. So, Billy and Robin have a built-in chemistry. Some of the best scenes in “Fathers’ Day” are devoted to the two performers bouncing off each other. When on a dock, trying to convince the mother of Scott’s girlfriend to help them, Williams pretends to cry while Crystal plays it up. A few minutes later, the men realize they’re talking about the same boy. Their reaction is great. Jack nicely plays off a random gambling fit Dale goes through. Similarly, Jack’s bemused reaction to Dale’s strangled driving gets some okay laughs. The two performers are comfortable together and the audience picks up on that.

As the title indicates, “Fathers’ Day” is not a movie about mothers. Despite that, the script does make room for some female performers. Nastassja Kinski gets the short stick as Collette. She has a handful of scenes, near the beginning and end of the film. Kinski, an incredibly talented performer, doesn’t have much more to do than deliver exposition. Her blatant disinterest in the material is clear on her face. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Crystal’s new wife. She too only has a few scenes. However, she has some funny moments with the leading men, being the straight man to their comedic antics. For some reason, Louise-Dreyfus was nominated for a Razzie for this perfectly serviceable, fine performance. Honestly, the best actress in the movie might be Haylie Johnson as Nikki, the brainless girl Scott is chasing. Johnson breathlessly delivers the cruel dialogue she’s given.

Ivan Reitman is usually good at putting together a supporting cast. “Fathers’ Day” does not have his hottest cast but features one or two bright spot. Charlie Hofheimer is fine as Scott, gritting his teeth during the awkward scenes. When given more room by the script, Hofheimer has a decent nervous energy. Bruce Greenwood plays Collette’s husband, Scott’s foster dad. Greenwood, a solid character actor, enlivens what could’ve been an empty role. Charles Rocket has a funny scene as a mechanic, who goes from hostile to frightened of the movie’s heroes. Jared Harris has a tiny role as a cartoonish drug dealer, fuming through a handful of lines. Also, I must mention Mel Gibson’s bizarre cameo as a body piercer. I’m not sure why he’s in the movie but it’s certainly a memorable moment.

“Fathers’ Day” goes for big belly laughs and does get them from time to time. Probably the stand-out moment in the flick occurs when Robin has the unconscious Scott in a hotel shower. While trying to clean the boy’s vomit off his chest, Crystal is on the phone with his wife. Adding to the absurdity is the room service guy coming in at the same time. This scene escalates nicely in silliness. When meeting a rock band, Williams pretends to be a European record executive. Robin Williams was often mocked for his goofy voices but this scene did get laughs out of me, especially everyone’s acceptance of his story. “Fathers’ Day’s” big climax centers around an escalating fist fight at a rock concert, another amusingly silly sequence.

Like many gag comedies, not every joke inside “Fathers’ Day” is successful. Bruce Greenwood ending up inside a Port-a-Potty as it rolls down the hill is a sequence that goes far too long. The film actually returns to it a few times, the audience getting more tired each time. A scene focuses on Robin Williams’ burning his crotch on hot coffee and leaping into a bath. Billy Crystal’s phobia of mimes is a gag that pays off in the limpest way. Williams’ eccentricities are piled a little too high, even if the actor does his best to ground the part. This is best emphasized during the bit where he goes crowd-surfing at a rock concert.

“Fathers’ Day” wouldn’t be a nineties era Ivan Reitman movie without a number of a odd tonal shifts. The subplot about Scott owning money to a pair of drug dealers comes out of nowhere. Occasionally, it threatens to push this zany comedy into a darker direction which is not appreciated at all. “Fathers’ Day” never becomes sappy or maudlin, like “Kindergarten Cop” or “Junior,” which is beneficial to the final project. The reveal at the end, concerning which of the central characters are actually Scott’s father, is lazy screenwriting. Still, “Fathers’ Day” attempts to plop an emotional bow on at the end and that sort of works.

Ivan Reitman’s habit to insert pop songs into his movies actually makes some sense in “Fathers’ Day.” The boy is part of the mid-nineties power-pop/punk scene. The band Sugar Ray, back when they were a slightly edgy rock band instead of a wimpy pop group, are actually reoccurring characters. The Muffs show up on-screen too. Does that justify the director playing “The Impression That I Get” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones twice? No. Paul McCartney songs, “Young Boy” and “The World Tonight,” play over the opening and closing credits. Like most latter-day McCartney songs, they’re listenable but forgettable. James Newton Howard’s score is better than his previous scores for Reitman. This one features some okay guitar and piano driven melodies.

“Fathers’ Day” is not a comedy classic waiting to be rediscovered. It’s totally minor and relatively forgettable. However, in the moment, it provides some laughs and leaves the audience with a smile. Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are both funny and the script plays to their strengths. That the film would bomb and garner acidic reviews is surprising. This seems like the kind of easy going crowd-pleaser that would’ve done alright at the box office. Go in with low expectations and you might enjoy it. [Grade: B-]

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