Assault on the tear ducts

Hugs abound in reconciliation comedy

Published: Feb 08 2019, 01:01:am

Sunday, October 29, 1989
DAD. Based on William Wharton’s 1981 novel Dad. Music by James Horner. Co-produced, written and directed by Gary David Goldberg. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C Classifier’s warning: occasional coarse and suggestive language.

IT'S A MIRACLE. AFTER days, perhaps weeks (or maybe months) spent lying comatose in the intensive care unit, Dad (Jack Lemmon) awakens.
    The crisis past, he's filled with a new zest for life. Together with his adult son John (Ted Danson) and grandson Billy (Ethan Hawke), retired Los Angeles aircraft mechanic Jake Tremont heads for the Venice Beach flea market.
    With their help, the 78-year-old Jake assembles the silliest wardrobe this side of the swinging sixties. “Inside,” he tells us, “I feel like a 19-year-old.”
    It's a mess. An all-out assault on the tear ducts, writer-director Gary David Goldberg's first big-screen feature is one of those movies in which the whole is a lot less than the sum of its parts.
    Individual scenes are fine. Jake’s driving test, a vignette in which John's concern for his old dad goes to comic extremes, generates warmth and real humour.
    Deeply affecting is a moment between Jake and his wife Bette (Olympia Dukakis). They both know that the end is near. “Don't talk about dying,” she says, ever protective of the fearful, withdrawn man for whom she's cared for so many years.
    “That's okay,” he says with new assurance. “We're all going to die. Dying is not a sin. Not living is.”
    Individual performances are outstanding. Lemmon, 64, manages to convey both frailty and inner strength in his portrayal of a man coming to terms with his own mortality.
    Danson, who has only recently come into his own as a big-screen actor, nicely catches the insecurity of the successful son discovering new and important responsibilities.
    Dukakis, an Oscar winner for her portrayal of the loyal wife in 1987’s Moonstruck, adds a necessary dash of bitters here as the sharp-tongued, stifling mother.
    A film bathed in golden light, Dad contains the most hugging seen on a screen since television’s Family Ties finale. Not surprisingly, former TV writer Goldberg was the creator of that particular hit series.
    Unfortunately, just as composer James Horner's score is stuck in Dave (On Golden Pond) Grusin mode, Goldberg's screenplay can't shake the video sitcom style. A series of glib, independently effective skits, it never coalesces into a believably coherent whole.
    Between hugs, I wondered about the bills. Here's a story that begins with an elderly suburban woman suffering a heart attack in her local supermarket.
    While she's still convalescing, her husband discovers that he has cancer, undergoes surgery, becomes disoriented and falls into a coma. During the film’s two hours, they experience four major hospitalizations, including Jake's ambiguously long stay in the ICU.
    I don't recall anyone being concerned about money. In the real world, money is a serious component of illness in the U.S. Anyone attuned to current events knows that that nation is in the midst of a major health-care crisis, one affecting millions of blue-collar retirees just like John Tremont's dad.
    A feel-good family drama, Dad is one of the new cycle of parental reconciliation pictures that has given us Field of Dreams and Parenthood [both 1989]. Despite good intentions and fine acting, Goldberg's feature is a soggy Kleenex short of the mark.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1989. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Dad was Gary David Goldberg’s feature film debut. Though I had my doubts about his directorial skills, his television credits include producing the second season of Lou Grant (1978-1979) — my all-time favourite TV series — for which he wrote five episodes. In those episodes, he showed a fine understanding of real-life issues facing ordinary Americans, including the inadequacies of their health-care system. (I’ve been concerned about this issue for long time. In 1992, I wrote an op-ed piece for The Province on the subject that’s achieved on Reeling Back as Life, Death and Politics.)
    Reportedly as genial in person as his Dad star Jack Lemmon, he is best known for creating the seven-season comedy hit Family Ties (1982-1989), the show that introduced American audiences to Canadian actor Michael J. Fox. Goldberg’s television work includes the “creation” of some 10 series between 1979 and 1996, a list that includes six comedies —The Last Resort, Making the Grade, Sara, Day by Day, Champs, Battery Park — two dramas —The Bronx Zoo, Brooklyn Bridge — and the six-season political comedy Spin City (1996-2002). His second major broadcast hit to star Fox, Spin City was also his farewell to TV. In 2005, Warner Brothers released the romantic comedy Must Love Dogs, Goldberg’s second (and last) feature film. Again he took full responsibility as producer, writer and director. And, again, the picture fell short of success.