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Film / Parenthood

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"You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it."

Parenthood is a 1989 comedy-drama film directed by Ron Howard and starring an ensemble cast including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Tom Hulce, Keanu Reeves, and a very young Joaquin Phoenix.

The film follows Gil Buckman (Martin), a neurotic man who works as a sales executive. Though he is constantly busy with his job, he wants to spend more time with his three kids and be a better father to them, especially since his own dad, Frank (Robards), was distant and worked all the time. This soon gets worse as he finds out that his wife Karen (Steenburgen) is now pregnant with their fourth child. Gil becomes worried if he will be able to handle this. To top it off, Gil begins seriously questioning his parenting skills as his oldest son Kevin enters therapy and his other two kids have some emotional problems as well.

Gil ends up having to spend more time at work not only due to an expanding family, but also because of the office politics where he works. His siblings deal with their own issues as well: younger brother Larry (Tom Hulce) refuses to grow up, dumping his problems — and son — on their aging parents; Helen (Wiest) deals with her teenage daughter Julie's (Martha Plimpton) pregnancy and elopement with Tod (Reeves) and her son Garry's (Phoenix) abandonment issues; and Susan (Harley Kozak) deals with her husband Nathan (Moranis) and his harsh academic training of their preschool-aged daughter.

A big critical and commercial success, Parenthood was twice adapted to television, first in 1990 and then again in 2010.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Tod tells Helen about how his father used to flick lit cigarettes at his head.
      Tod: (imitating his father) "Hey asshole, get up and make me breakfast."
    • Frank's own father kicked him out at fifteen and was clearly not the best parent even before that. As Gil states in the opening, it led to him becoming someone who viewed being a parent as a chore.
  • Actor Allusion: Steve Martin plays Gil straight, as a mostly serious man with lots of Deadpan Snarker moments. Martin gets a chance to play his familiar goofy persona that was typical of most of his Saturday Night Live sketches when dressing up as "Cowboy Gil" for Kevin's birthday party.
  • Adults Are Useless: Majorly averted. All of the adults in the film may have bumbling moments, but they're also able to step up and solve problems whenever they arise. For example, Gil quickly turns himself into a cowboy party entertainer for Kevin's birthday, and Helen, realizing that Garry's not comfortable talking with her about masturbation, asks Tod to do it instead.
  • The Alcoholic: Frank is implied to be a heavy drinker - Gil says that he shows up drunk to every wedding and family gathering.
    • During a short power outage when the lights go out:
    Gil: Don't worry dad, I'm sure you can still find the bar.
  • Ambiguous Ending:
    • It's never made clear whether or not Kevin wound up in special education. Whether he's learning to get a handle on his emotions on his own, or special education truly gave him the environment he needed, all you can tell he's happy where he is, and that he's found his passion in baseball.
    • What became of Larry isn't 100% clear, either. Whether he's off pursuing his next get-rich-quick scheme, or the bookies he owed money to caught up to him, all you know is that Buckman family never saw him again.
  • Auto Erotica: Karen impulsively leans over to give Gil oral sex in an attempt to relax him. He ends up crashing the car, though they're not injured, fortunately. It does make for quite the awkward moment when the cop asks how the accident happened.
    Gil: (to Karen) Show him, honey.
  • Babies Ever After: The final scenes show the family continuing to grow.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: The implications of the final scenes mentioned above.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The movie ends with a woman giving birth. Given the two pregnancies mentioned—Karen and Julie—and that Susan has expressed a desire for another child, it's reasonable it's one of them. Only for it to be Helen, who not only wasn't pregnant but whose new relationship was still in the beginning stages.
  • Black Sheep: While all the Buckmans are screwed up to some degree Larry definitely fits this trope when compared to his siblings.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Buckmans have their share of hardships and hang-ups.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Frank delivers one to Larry when the latter complains about losing his money in a lost bet over a basketball game. He blames a young rookie player who delivers the shot that cost his win instead of accepting that he shouldn't have been gambling in the first place.
  • Blatant Lies: Pretty much everything that comes out of Larry's mouth.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Julie, although she does eventually grow out of it with some support from her mom.
  • Brutal Honesty: A gentle version between Frank and Cool:
    Cool: "My dad's going away."
    Frank: "Yes".
    Cool: "He's leaving right away."
    Frank: "Yes".
    Cool: "Is he ever coming back?"
    Frank: "No."
  • Children Are Innocent: Despite being savvy enough to ask if his departing father is ever coming back, Cool is utterly unaffected by the news that he isn't, even though he's now been abandoned by both of his parents.
  • Children Raise You: And how.
  • Chocolate Baby: Larry's son Cool.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Grandma.
  • The Cloudcuckoolander Was Right: Grandma's story about the roller coaster proves an apt metaphor for Gil's life.
  • Cool Big Bro: Todd for Garry. He reassures him that his pornography bag is nothing to be ashamed of, and helps bring him out of his shell.
  • Cool Old Guy: Frank is a crotchety old man who doesn't take BS from anybody, and is one of the few members of the family who isn't afraid to tell it like it is.
  • Cool Old Lady: Grandma might get passed around the family like a fruitcake but she's pretty awesome when it comes down to it.
  • Con Man: In addition to being a degenerate gambler, Larry is also a pathological liar peddling in one fraudulent Get-Rich-Quick Scheme after another. Frank mistakes Larry's glib talk for a genuine entrepreneurial spirit, but wises up when Larry tries to steal his favorite car on the pretext of getting it "appraised".
  • Control Freak: Nathan.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster makes it look like it'll be another wacky Steve Martin comedy. It's more drama than comedy and the humor is more adult and subtle. We do get a taste of authentic Steve Martin standup comedy when he plays "Cowboy Gil" at Kevin's birthday party when the original entertainment, "Cowboy Bob" fails to show up. His very effective impromptu performance bolsters both Gil and Kevin's confidence.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Several characters, but especially:
    • Gil. Hardly a scene passes where he doesn't have an incredibly dry and caustic sarcastic remark. Of course, since he's played by Steve Martin, it would be weird if he wasn't.
    • Gil clearly takes after his father Frank, who is just as clever and abrasive with his quips.
  • Destroy the Abusive Home: A variation when Gary breaks into his father's office and trashes it. The climax is the smashing of the picture of him with his new wife and kid.
  • Disappeared Dad: A good deal of Helen's troubles with her kids stems from her divorce. Larry becomes one when he ditches his son on his parents.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: There is no indication that Karen told Gil that she was going to suck him off while he was driving, much less asked if she could; after the ensuing accident and his angry suggestion to her that she explain to the police what she was doing when it happened, it's clear that the whole thing was a setup for a joke.
  • Dysfunctional Family
    Tod: I had a man around. He used to wake me up every morning by flicking lit cigarettes at my head. He'd say, "Hey, asshole, get up and make me breakfast." You know, Ms. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish! (shakes his head) But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.
  • Emo Teen: Garry is incredibly reserved, antisocial, and moody. Though given what he's been through, it's hard to blame him. His mood improves after both Helen and Tod talk to him about it all.
  • Ensemble Cast: While Gil's family is the main focus, the film's charm comes from its fully fleshed cast of characters that round out the extended Buckman clan.
  • Family Versus Career:
    • Karen struggles with the idea of going back to work or staying home to take care of her kids. She mentions that others criticize her for liking her position as a homemaker.
    • Gil as well. His problems at work stem from the fact that he isn't willing to spend more time there in order to be a good father to his kids. His rival, on the other hand, is fully prepared to sacrifice his entire personal life to get ahead.
    • There's also Helen, who has a well-paying job at a bank. At one point, she shouts that thanks to her ex-husband and his lack of support payments, she's pretty much forced to raise her children on her own, which requires her to work long hours.
  • Flash Forward: After putting Kevin on second base at a baseball game, Gil has two of these to Kevin's college graduation: in the first Kevin is confident and successful, but in the second (after Kevin failed to make a catch), he is at the top of a tower shooting at everyone in sight with an assault rifle.
  • Freudian Excuse: Gil's childhood self notes this in the opening, that Frank struggled with being a parent due to never having had a positive role model growing up, his own father having been an abusive man who kicked him out at fifteen.
  • The Gambling Addict: Larry and it's so bad he's in serious debt to bookies who are threatening to kill him.
  • Get-Rich-Quick Scheme: Larry talks the good talk of various planned business ventures, most of which are somewhere between daydreams and Blatant Lies.
  • The Ghost:
    • Helen's ex, only seen briefly in a family picture just before it's smashed.
    • Gil's business rival, Phil. Whose character (or lack thereof) is divulged through chats with Gil and Dave.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Karen asks Gil point blank if this is what he wants her to do regarding her pregnancy, given his less-than-thrilled reaction and the chaos their life is currently in—oldest son in therapy, Gil just quit his job, Karen wants to start working again, etc. They argue about it and Gil storms out without them having come to a decision, but several days later, he has accepted the pregnancy and they've decided to make it work.
  • Hate Sink: Helen's unseen ex who abandoned Gary and Julie and has no interest in a relationship with them (though Gary is clearly the one worst affected by this) In a film where almost every major character and parent is given sympathetic qualities, he stands out as nothing more than a neglectful, selfish jerkass who Gary, Julie and Helen are better off without.
    • Phil is a piece of work, himself. It's bad enough he's the source of Gil's misery at work. But he also can't be bothered to spend time with his family, because he's too busy wining and dining potential clients. Which often involves setting them up with hookers. And then exploits loopholes so he doesn't have to pay child support. And then he skips the firm with all the clients he's racked up. The only good thing about him is that he was a self-correcting problem for Gil.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Frank. In spite of his often crass and insensitive nature throughout the film, he genuinely loves his family, particularly his grandson Cool born from his favorite child Larry. He eventually takes the child in to raise him after Larry abandons the family for another big scam.
  • Heroic BSoD: Helen does not handle the news that Julie is pregnant well.
    George Bowman: You're going to be a grandma?
    Helen: [laughs incredulously] No, no, no, no. I'm too young to be a grandmother. Grandmothers are old. They bake, and they sew, and they tell you stories about the Depression. [shouts] I was at Woodstock, for Christ's sake! I peed in a field! I hung on to The Who's helicopter as it flew away! [gestures wildly]
  • Hidden Depths: Tod isn't as shallow as he seems. Grandma has her moments as well.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Frank makes it clear to Larry that his gambling and his get-rich-quick schemes are what got him trouble. But rather than take up Frank's offer to head up the family business to pay off his gambling debts, Larry runs off for another get-rich-quick scheme, and is never seen again.
  • Imagine Spot: When Gil gets his anxiety-ridden child to feel confident enough to play infield, he imagines his son graduating from college a valedictorian, gratefully thanking his dad for his support. When his son's confidence is destroyed by a serious error, Gil has a different Imagine Spot of his child as a crazed clock-tower gunman with Kevin even attributing it to the baseball game.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink:
    • When Julie offhandedly announces she's pregnant, one of the first things Helen does is head for the liquor cabinet.
    • A variation—when Susan tries to plan a romantic getaway with Nathan, only for him to immediately begin planning to bring Patty along so she can start learning Spanish, she rushes into her bedroom. There, it's revealed that she's stashed candy, snack cakes, and other sweets in her closet, and indulges in them whenever she gets stressed.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Nathan truly is a loving husband and father. But his hyperfixation on Patty's education leaves him blind to Susan's mounting frustration and Patty's stunted social development. When Susan tells him she's leaving him via flash cards, he doesn't even realize what's about to happen until she flat out tells him.
  • Jerkass:
    • Helen's ex, who ditched his wife and kids for another woman. To make matters worse, dialogue indicates he's a loving husband and father to his new wife and children, meaning it isn't a case of him just giving up and deciding that he doesn't want the responsibility of fatherhood anymore, he just genuinely doesn't give a damn about his first two children—Helen implies that it's been very difficult to get any financial support from him as well.
    • Lou is an overcompetitive father who attends the little league games. He's always berating Gil whenever the team does badly, making him even more stressed out than he already is. And he enables Matt's own competitive streak.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Frank, the Buckman patriarch. He's belligerent, likes to drink, and clearly plays favorites when it comes to his children, but he's also aware of his own failings as a parent and agrees to raise Cool when Larry skips town, demonstrating some hidden kindness.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Gil's concern about Kevin's possible placement in a special education class.
    Gil: People are cruel. Especially children.
    • Kevin's teammate Matt is a more straightforward example. All he does is shout at Kevin when he messes up, and just sets him up for failure, in general.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Tod, in spite of his airheaded personality and allegedly crappy childhood, is a pretty pleasant and laid-back teen. The ending implies that, despite Helen's predictions, he's become a responsible husband and parent.
    • He's also the only person who's able to get through to Garry, which finally breaks the younger boy from his silence and makes him happy again.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Dave chooses the sleazy Phil over Gil for a promotion, causing Gil to quit. Later, Dave calls up begging Gil to come back after Phil runs off with all the clients he schmoozed.
  • Lethal Chef: Helen teases Julie for her poor cooking skills.
    Helen: (on Tod and Julie's marriage): I give them six months. Four if she cooks.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Helen fears Garry may be this. His father ignores him, and in his spare time, he usually walks out of the house carrying a mysterious paper bag without interacting with anyone. After Garry trashes his father's office, Helen tears up his room and finds the bag contains pornography, which Tod assures her is normal for a kid his age to be interested in.
  • Mama Bear: Don't mess with any of the Buckman children. Ever.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie treats very serious and important family issues in a comedic manner (often darkly comedic).
  • Never My Fault: When Larry finds himself tens of thousands in debt to mafia-connected bookies after betting on a basketball game, he blames a basketball player for his situation rather than face the fact that he's a degenerate gambler. He has similar excuses for why none of his hare-brained get-rich-quick schemes ever panned out.
  • Nice Guy: Tod shows himself as this, proving to be a decent father and husband to Julie and being the only character to get through to Gary and cheer him up. Despite her initial dislike, Helen grows to like him.
  • No Antagonist: There is no villain in this movie: Even Larry, who is selfish enough to try to sell his father's car to pay off gambling debts, is clearly a slave to his own vices, just as all the other characters are slaves to their own failings.
  • Nuclear Family: Gil and Karen's family as well as Nathan and Susan's.
  • Papa Wolf: See Mama Bear.
  • Parental Abandonment: Helen's ex-husband toward his kids and Larry after he dumps Cool.
  • Parental Favoritism:
    • Frank is much friendlier and more supportive towards Larry than he is towards Gil or his daughters because he initially mistakes Larry's schemes and pipe dreams for a genuine entrepreneurial spirit. He eventually sees through Larry's BS and realizes that he's made a mistake in favoring him over his more responsible children.
    • A far more extreme case of this is Helen's ex-husband, who loves and cares for the children that he has with his current wife but prefers to live his life as though Garry and Julie, his two children from his previous marriage to Helen, don't even exist.
  • Parental Neglect: By his own admission, Frank was a lousy father who saw his children as something of a burden and often ignored them (leaving Gil with ushers at ball games, etc.). However, he always provided for them, so it was a case of being emotionally distant and unavailable rather than any kind of criminal neglect.
  • Parent Never Came Back from the Store:
    • Larry tells his father that he's going off to South America on yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes, assuring that he'll return if it doesn't pan out and asking him to look after his son in the meantime. His son, at all of four years old, is savvy enough to bluntly ask his grandfather, "Is he ever coming back?" To which his grandfather just as bluntly answers, "No".
    • Cool's mother did more or less the same thing to him.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Tod starts to take over as a male role model in Gary's life. It's a sign of his maturing.
    • The grandparents looking after Cool, which indicates, in the grandfather's case, his softening—he and Gil have had a prickly relationship due to his abrasive ways and favoritism of Larry.
  • Parents as People: The film does a great job showing all of the parental characters as fully developed characters with their own flaws, problems, and good sides.
  • Parents Walk In at the Worst Time: A variation when Helen finds the pictures of Tod and Julie having sex. Ironically, this was averted earlier in the movie when Julie managed to hide Tod under the bed when Helen walked in.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Helen starts dating George Bowman, a high school biology teacher. Julie and Gary are surprisingly okay with it. By the end of the film, Helen and George are married and have a newborn baby girl.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Garry, and for damn good reasons.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Gil's wormy boss Dave. The twerp couldn't care less about the work Gil has put into the firm and favors Gil's cutthroat co-worker, Phil, for prioritizing work over his family.
  • Practically Different Generations: Helen's baby girl is born after Julie's, meaning she's slightly younger than her niece/nephew.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Once Larry decides to skip town, Frank and Marilyn take on the task of raising their grandson.
  • School Play
  • School Shooting: Gil's second Flash Forward to Kevin's college graduation.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Nathan comes to Susan's school after she leaves him to win her back by singing "Close to You" demonstrating that he is willing to loosen up. He sings both the lead and the supporting vocals together, as effectively as is possible for one voice in real time. Every time she tries to put him off he breaks in with another part of the song. Eventually she relents.
  • Serious Business: Lou, one of the little league fathers, treats each game as if the outcome decides whether or not their kids will go on to play for the Yankees.
  • Shout-Out: Gil's Imagine Spot of Kevin shooting up the college campus is clearly inspired by the real-life event of Charles Whitman shooting up the University of Texas from the campus tower in 1966.
  • Sink or Swim Fatherhood: Larry attempts to take care of Cool for a couple of months after his mother ditches the boy on him. He in turn ditches the boy on his parents.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Grandma is dismissed as a senile old woman, but her comments make it clear that she knows exactly what's going on in the dysfunctional family.
  • The Stoner: Tod is a mild example.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Rather than a clichéd redemption arc, Larry never gets his act together and runs out on his son.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Helen's daughter Julie.
  • The Unfavorite: Frank and the Buchman siblings' polar opposite reactions to Larry showing up imply that they were all this in comparison to him. Ironically, Larry is a ne'er do well screwup while the remaining siblings, despite their own problems, are relatively successful and functional adults. Frank finally realizes his error when he not only notes this but that Larry will probably never get his act together.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Despite running up a $20,000 debt to bookies and finally admitting that he has a gambling problem, Larry turns down his father's offer of help—help that he begged for—to run off on another get-rich-quick scheme.
  • Tranquil Fury: When Helen inadvertently ends up with the pictures of Tod and Julie having sex, she remains very, very calm when Julie asks her about them and is more sarcastic than anything else. It's only when Julie makes a comment about Helen's own sex life ("I just thought someone in this house should be having sex...without something that needs batteries") that she completely loses it.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The nerdy, less-than-handsome Nathan is married to the very attractive Susan. This is highlighted by Karen's surprised reaction of disbelief to Susan's claim that Nathan really turned her on and that she and Nathan once had an extremely active sex life.
  • Unusual Euphemism
    Taylor: Mommy what was that?
    Karen: That was an "electrical ear cleaner".
    Taylor: It was kinda big.
    Grandma: It sure was.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Taylor unexpectedly vomits all over Gil in the beginning of the film.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Larry leaves for another poorly conceived scheme, he is not mentioned again, nor whether he managed to pay up his debts and escape with his life.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Most of Gil's story comes from him learning to avoid this trope.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: After Gil and Karen are told that Kevin needs to see a child therapist and is in danger of being left back, they immediately start pointing fingers at each other.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: At all of four years old, Cool is savvy enough to bluntly ask his grandfather if his departing father is ever coming back. Respecting this, and realizing that it's better to tell him the truth now instead of later, Frank just as bluntly tells him "No".
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: The family are all a bit taken aback by the fact that Larry's son is named Cool.
  • Younger Than They Look: The flashback at the start of the movie reveals Gil is supposed to be 35, which to be fair to Steve Martin is ludicrous - he looks way older and was 45 at the time.