David Basner (Hanks) is a top-flight Chicago ad exec who's doing well in his life; he's got a good chance to land Colonial, a major airline account, and becomes attracted to Cheryl Ann Wayne (Ward), the daughter of Colonial's owner, Andrew Woolridge (Corbin). But his personal life is turned upside down when his father, Max (Gleason) calls one night to tell him David's mother, Lorraine (Saint), has just walked out after 36 years of marriage. David must try to juggle both his career and personal life while trying to help both of his parents out, and trying especially to repair his relationship with his father.
This movie contains examples of:
- All Men Are Perverts:Max: Your best friend is your dick.
David: Now where did I learn that? Your best friend is your dick!
Max: Great, maybe the four of us can get together and have lunch.
- As the Good Book Says...: Charlie doesn't quote anything specific from The Bible, but when he tries to make David feel better by telling him about his own troubles with his father (Charlie put his father in a nursing home because he was starting to go senile, and at the end, his father didn't even recognize Charlie), and David says he thought Charlie was the perfect son, Charlie gently replies, "They told me there was only one of those guys."
- Betty and Veronica: A variation in that Donna (Betty) and Cheryl (Veronica) aren't actually competing with each other over David, but they both fit those respective character types otherwise.
- Bland-Name Product: While David's agency handles Adidas, the airline David works with is called Colonial. (There was a Colonial Airlines that formed after World War II, but it was absorbed by Eastern Airlines.)
- By "No", I Mean "Yes": David does this twice; when he's in bed with the stewardess, she asks him if she's involved with someone, and he responds, "No. Yes. Well; does self-involved count?" Later, Cheryl asks if she's coming on too strong to him, and he replies, "No. No. Well, not for a sumo wrestler."
- Calling the Old Man Out: David does this to Max after Lorraine reveals just how badly Max treated her during their marriage.
- Central Theme: A Manchild going from treating his parents as Amazingly Embarrassing Parents to Parents as People.
- Cloudcuckoo Lander: Apparently, David was strange even as a kid.David: So now you approve of me now that I'm an adult? You never approved of me when I was a kid.
Max: I never knew what you were talking about! You were a moody little shit. Every time I went in to take a pee, you're holding a funeral for those damned seahorses!
- Counting to Ten: When David tries telling Woolridge he can't be at the final presentation because Max will be in surgery, Woolridge threatens David by telling him he's giving him until the count of ten to change his mind. David does not take this well, screaming "TEN!!!!!" when Woolridge gets to it. (See Precision F-Strike below).
- Deadpan Snarker: David fits this trope pretty well, and Donna and Max also qualify. Cheryl Ann, who is otherwise Sarcasm-Blind, even has one moment of this near the end as well, which astonishes David.
- Did the Earth Move for You, Too?: As David and the stewardess are having sex, the plane they're in (see Mile-High Club below) runs into some turbulence; predictably, David says a variation of this line.
- Dirty Old Man: Max.Max: That Gina gives good sponge.
- Dodgy Toupee: A Running Gag throughout the movie is the series of these that Charlie, David's boss, wears, until he finally decides to go with his natural bald look.Lorraine: (after Charlie runs off because he's uncomfortable with Lorraine staring at him) That rug is the worst! Do you think he realizes it?
David: He does now.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: At Woolridge's stable, a colt and a foal are shown mating together while David and Cheryl stare at each other.
- Dramedy: And expressly marketed as such in the film's Tagline, as seen on the poster above.
- The '80s: Downplayed, but definitely there. Aside from references that date the film, David muses that he and Cheryl would be "the perfect executives", alluding to the business-centric mood of the decade. It also dates itself with a petitioner against lights at Wrigley — two years later, the first night game would be played there.
- Expy: Max is highly reminiscent of Willy Loman.
- First Girl Wins: Strongly implied at the ending. However, Donna at the film's end is moving to Detroit, while David remains in Chicago.
- Funny Answering Machine: David has funny messages all the time; when Max calls to tell him about Lorraine leaving, David's message is him advertising for a voice-over actor for his latest commercial, and when Woolridge calls to arrange a meeting, David pretends he can't hear him, until finally revealing it's a message.
- Guilt Complex: Lorraine has one about Max's diabetes. She knew he was self-destructive, but couldn't do anything about it. She tells David over and over that it wasn't her fault, but it's obvious she thinks she somehow was responsible. David repeatedly assures her, no, his life-threatening diabetes was not her fault.
- Hard-Work Montage: A particularly effective one of David and his team trying to think of an ad campaign for Colonial, linked together by shots of David playing his drumsticks.
- Though "hard work" is relative:Mishi: [pretending to be a plane] So board me, and feel the experience. Fly Colonial Airlines.
David: You're an airplane?
David: Anyone want to board Mishi?
- Though "hard work" is relative:
- Heroic BSoD: David has one of these during the shooting of the commercial (the day after his big fight with Max), until Roger, the director, calms him down.
- Just for Pun: Donna chides David for not showing up at her experimental theater show; David counters he was trying to conduct an experiment of seeing if he could enjoy the show without actually going.
- Leitmotif: Christopher Cross' "Loving Strangers" is subtitled "David's Theme".
- Like Father, Like Son: Max and David are pretty similar.David Kehr: Gleason is a glad-handing, old-fashioned salesman, a not-very-distant relative to Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, who operates out of Chicago's Apparel Center. His son, Hanks, is a salesman, too, though he belongs to a newer generation: He's a creative director for a large Midwestern advertising agency. He makes his pitch, not to one customer at a time, but to millions through the medium of TV commercials. Yet his methods are much like his Dad's: Hook 'em with a joke, win their sympathy with an emotional appeal and go for their wallets.
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: Max quietly admits he's no longer able to perform to David. This Foreshadows the fact that Max has adult diabetes.
- Manchild: Justified and deconstructed. David is goofy and childish because in advertising, it's required. The film takes a look at what happens when someone like that is forced to grow up a little.
- Manly Tears: After Lorraine leaves Max in his hospital room, probably the last time he'll ever see her, he starts crying, acknowledging his situation is basically his fault.
- Mile-High Club: David has sex with a stewardess on the plane at the beginning of the movie - while in his seat.David: [to a disbelieving passenger] I'm a frequent flier; they gave me a bonus.
- Mood Whiplash: The chief complaint from Roger Ebert and other critics - the comedic and serious stories clashed.
- No Sense of Humor: Dale. David and the rest of the advertisers always try to make her laugh, unsuccessfully. She later admits to David that it feels strange when he's no longer trying to make her laugh during his Despair Event Horizon.Dale: Ms. Wayne wants the...
David: The copy. I know.
Dale: You don't make jokes anymore with me anymore, Mr. Basner.
David: You liked those jokes?
David: So did I.
- Just before the end credits, David is once again up to his old antics. Dale can only Face Palm.
- Cheryl Ann is the same way; whenever David tries to make a joke to her, she doesn't get it.
- Off with His Head!: The fate of Mr. Buzzword.
- One Steve Limit: Averted; there are two maintenance men at the building David works in, both named Manny (naturally, David lampshades this).
- OOC Is Serious Business: After David blows up at Woolridge (see Precision F-Strike below), and he orders Cheryl Ann to fire him, Sheryl Ann's response (after her father has walked out) is, "That was quite a performance. What do you do for an encore, blow up the building?" As upset as David is, he's blown away by the fact that Cheryl Ann, who seems to have No Sense of Humor, made a joke.
- Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality: Lorraine's marriage. Her first date after leaving Max suffers from this as well.
- Piss Take Rap: Done during the Hard-Work Montage. It's unknown if it's serious or supposed to be cringeworthy.
- Precision F-Strike: When Woolridge threatens him to come to the presentation (or he'll lose the account), David has had enough:David: Look, I've done the job all right! Take my stuff, do whatever you want to do with it, but for the fifth time now, I'm not going anywhere with anybody, and don't you ever fuckin' touch me again!
- Product Placement: David's ad agency created one for Adidas, but the rest of the film revolves around a fictional airline, Colonial.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Charlie, especially in the Dénouement.
- Running Gag: In addition to Charlie's Dodgy Toupee, there's also David's attempts throughout the movie to get Dale, the secretary at the ad agency, to laugh, all of which fail.
- There's also Max's personalized pens, whom he gives to everyone and anyone after he's been laid off and can't give to clients anymore.
- Sad-Times Montage: Played for Laughs when David's parents constantly call him for favors.David: (to Donna) THEY'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY!
- Sanity Slippage: David goes completely sideways shooting the airline commercial finding a cat on set.note David: Lose the cat. Roger! Get it out of here! [to Roger] A cat?
Roger: She could say goodbye to the cat.
David: Oh. That's a good idea.
David: Let's do one about a grandma...who abandons a cat in winter... so she can romp with her grandkids! We can show the cat trying to CLAW ITS WAY OUT TRYING TO GET FOOD, MAYBE EATING SNOW TO SURVIVE! (on bullhorn) ARE THERE MORE ANIMALS THAT GRANDMA CAN TORTURE?! MAYBE PUT A SQUIRREL IN THE FIRE?!
Charlie: (disbelieving) Partner? Boyle, Gargas, Lionel and Basner?
- Early in the movie, Charlie says he hopes David has turned down the offers he's received from other ad agencies; David replies that he turned them down because those agencies wouldn't make him a partner;
David: Like...John, Paul, George and Ringo.
- Becomes an Ironic Echo later, when Charlie sends David a letter telling him he's free to pursue the airline account, and signs it, "John, Paul, George and Ringo".
- Also, when David first sees Cheryl Ann and immediately becomes attracted to her, he asks if she knows what time it is (she tells him), and then he quotes a line from Woody Allen's Everything You've Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) ("Before you know it, The Renaissance will be here and we'll all be busy painting"). She doesn't get it.
- David's staff chant "Lux Aeterna" when presented with his office window.
- Soap Opera Disease: Averted with Max. Adult diabetes can have some gruesome effects when you don't treat it and your dietary habits suck while you smoke cigars.
- Society Marches On: One of the airline pitch ideas has a man confessing to a evangelist preacher that not only does he not have enough room in his seat in a rival airline, but there's no place to smoke on the plane.
- Spit Take: David does a variant of this when he and Woolridge are out hunting. Woolridge tells David Cheryl speaks highly of him, and adds, "She says you're a great lay," whereupon David accidentally shoots his gun.
- Suddenly SHOUTING!: David does this twice; see when Woolridge counts to three, and Sanity Slippage above.
- They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: When two young kids at the ad agency at the beginning call David "dude", he responds, "That's Mr. Basner to you."
- Title Theme Tune: Sung by Thompson Twins.
- Wham Shot: The shot of Max's diabetes-ravaged feet.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The end credits show Max and David adjusting to their new lives. Max hangs out in the studio playing cards with older crew, David continues shooting commercials, Max gets accustomed to having glasses, and David keeps (unsuccessfully) trying to make Dale laugh.