Movie review: ‘Parenthood’

Ron Howard is such a terrific director. The obvious evidence can be found in drama with “Apollo 13” and even fantasy with the underrated and wonderful “Willow.” Such work shows that it is obvious he brings out the best in actors. Today, I’m taking a look at “Parenthood” he got the best from Oscar nominee (not for this one) Tom Hulce and two-time Oscar winner (not for this one) Jason Robards, both who make you intensely dislike their characters. It’s not easy to do that for either actor or direction and it’s a tribute to their talent as well as Howard’s talent behind the camera. Don’t worry, there’s other talent, too, from Steve Martin to two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, who was nominated for “Parenthood.”

(1989; 124 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Ron Howard and starring Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards and Tom Hulce)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion and trivia and the updating of links on Dec. 15, 2018.)

It’s easy to tell when an actor has truly done a good job: he or she conveys a role that isn’t fun or endearing to the audience. For example I enjoyed Glenn Close in “The World According to Garp” and “The Big Chill,” but I didn’t look the same at her after “Fatal Attraction.” The same can be said in director Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” about Jason Robards and Tom Hulce.


Robards and Hulce (I’ll get to their characters later) make you want to dislike more than just the character. It’s a completely different emotion evoked for Keanu Reeves, who, in a small role, is fun, endearing and leaves you smiling each time you see him. They are even better in my opinion than two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in “Parenthood,” and is the ostensible headliner next to Steve Martin.

Parenthood” is the story of the “Buckman” family. Papa “Frank” is played by Robards and his kids are “Gil” (Martin), “Helen” (Wiest), “Susan” (Harley Jane Kozak) and “Larry” (Hulce). Each has their own slice of family and there’s ups, downs, in-betweens and everything else. Howard is telling an intricate family story about a family that’s movie dysfunctional but also one that many people can all too easily understand.

At the center of the story, Martin and his wife “Karen,” who is played by Oscar winner (not for this one) Mary Steenburgen, have a houseful of kids and their oldest son is failing at school because of a learning disability. She wants to go back to work; he hates his job; and they appear to careen from one crisis to the next while knowing another crisis will arrive before they solve the one they’re in now.

Along with Martin and Steenburgen is Wiest, who is dealing with her own problems – a teenage daughter who is breaking away to be with her boyfriend and husband-to-be and a son acting very “mysterious.” Toss in a daughter (Kozak) whose husband (Rick Moranis) is over-coaching their child and the wayward son who turns up at all the wrong times with some excessive baggage.

So, all the family issues spin out just as you might expect in a true drama and there is a happy ending, but the edges are singed a little bit with all the rough spots the “Buckmans” had to go through to get there.

Now, let me look at the headliners …

  • A five-time Golden Globe nominee (including for this one), Martin, who was better in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (click here for my review), is basically himself here: fun, creative and, as need be, strong but fragile. He gets to do physical comedy as well as delivering some solid dramatic work. It’s a good role for the man who was also in “Cheaper by the Dozen” and its sequel (click here for my review of the sequel) as well as most recognized in “Father of the Bride” (click here for my review) and its sequel. However, I liked him best with fellow “Parenthood” co-star Moranis in “My Blue Heaven” (click here for my review). Martin received an honorary Oscar for his career in 2014. The rest of his CV? Too much to mention in this review, but I will write that it is quite puzzling why Steve has never been nominated for an Oscar.
  • An Oscar winner (not for this one), Steenburgen gives a great performance as a low-key woman, emotionally tied to motherhood and, unknown to Martin, pregnant. She does wonderful work here, but I liked her better in “Time After Time” (click here for my review) and her Oscar win was from “Melvin and Howard.” Steenburgen did OK in “Step Brothers” with Will Ferrell, but didn’t have much room to work with in that one.
  • A two-time Oscar winner (and nominee for this one), Wiest plays a single mother struggling to deal with a genius-IQ daughter who just wants to get married. Wiest even has to deal with accidentally being given photos her daughter and Reeves took of themselves in bed and a son who hates his father for leaving them and has hit puberty with a vengeance. Weist moves through her character with sublime ease. She won her statues for “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Hannah and her Sisters” and you’ll probably remember her as the mother in the horror classic “The Lost Boys” (click here for my review).

However very good to nearly excellent that Martin, Steenburgen and Wiest can be, they never manage to equal Robards or Hulce here.

  • A two-time Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one), Robards’ gives a portrayal of “Frank” as one of an egotistical, bossy, loud mouth who is distant and uncaring about his wife and just about everyone else. He preaches getting through life with grand schemes but at the end of the day is lower-middle class and conventional. In just one example, Robards has steak at his insistence at a family dinner where everyone else has spaghetti – today we call it pasta. Robards won for “All the President’s Men” (click here for my review) and “Julia” and was nominated for “Melvin and Howard” with Steenburgen. Frankly (no pun intended to his character’s name here), I like him best in the very underrated “Max Dugan Returns” from Neil Simon (it was Matthew Broderick’s film debut – click here for my review). He was lost amid a huge cast in the Pearl Harbor film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review). He died at 78 in 2000 of lung cancer.
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Hulce has a character who is a congenital liar, neer-do-well and basic weasel disliked by the whole family except Robards. However, his lone pillar of support weakens when Hulce tries to steal his father’s restored antique car to pay off a gambling debt. He even has a son by a woman he left behind in Las Vegas (the son’s name is “Cool”) and brings him out as an unintended surprise at a family dinner. Hulce turns up the acting heat and is just powerfully slimy from his first scene to his last. He was nominated for an Oscar for “Amadeus” and was, of course and unforgettably, “Larry ‘Pinto’ Kroger” in only his second film: “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

For the strong and very deep supporting cast, Howard doesn’t really shortchange any one of them. Some, like Kozak and Rick Moranis, are as not as prominent with on-screen time as others, but it is done well and you don’t find yourself wishing for more time from any one actor.

Here’s a rundown of other primary supporting cast members:

  • The most surprisingly sweet effort in this one is by Reeves, who plays “Tod” the boyfriend of Weist’s high-school age daughter. In the second-best scenes of the film Reeves tells Wiest in detail why her son is acting so strangely and had been carrying a bag of porn around with him. Reeves shows a depth of character you wouldn’t expect from the loopy, generally confused “Tod” and he easily hits the mark with the audience. Of course Reeves is “Neo” from “The Matrix” franchise as well as having starred in action thrillers such as “Speed” and “Point Break” with Patrick Swayze (click here for my review).
  • A Primetime Emmy winner, Moranis plays the overachieving “Nathan,” who is the fussy, high-brow husband to Kozak. Both these characters have flaws (he also has hidden sexual talents, as Kozak gossips about him) but make the most of their minutes on screen. Moranis has been in a variety of kid-friendly films including “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Little Giants” (click here for my review). Moranis won his Emmy for writing on TV’s “SCTV Network.” Kozak, who didn’t use her middle name in the credits, was in “Necessary Roughness” (click here for my review) and “When Harry Met Sally.”
  • Later to be a three-time Oscar nominee, Joaquin Phoenix (as Leaf Phoenix in the credits) plays puberty-stricken “Garry,” the younger child of Wiest. It sounds kind of creepy but works really well here – he’s into porn and gets advice about what he’s going through from Reeves. Phoenix does a solid job with the small part and, like his older peers, does his best to make this a great film. After “Parenthood” he would be nominated for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line” and “The Master.” I thought he did OK, too, in the kid-friendly but at-first ignored and then forgotten “Space Camp” (click here for my review).
  • A Primetime Emmy winner and two-time nominee, Martha Plimpton plays “Julie” and is Wiest’s rebellious daughter. She doesn’t make quite the splash here as Reeves, but she does a solid, efficient job. Plimpton was also in “The Goonies” and “The Mosquito Coast.” She won for TV’s “The Good Wife” and was nominated for “Raising Hope” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

At the end of the film you realize that Howard was trying to tell a real story out of life … well, as much as any Hollywood director can make it. He didn’t go for cheap thrills or wallow in stereotypes. He took a solid story and made it come to life with characters that make you think and draw evaluations of the character as a human being. Given the crap being shoveled out of Hollywood today, “Parenthood” is a bright and shining example of on-screen storytelling.

Thanks, Ron!

Of course, Howard works with only the best of the best (unless you’re talking about his absolutely horrific Formula One car racing film “Rush”) and, just go back up in this review to see how many in the cast won Oscars or have been nominated for one.

Parenthood” was the ninth ranked film at U.S. theaters in 1989 with right at $100 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a $31 million budget and took in an overall total of $126.2 million since it was re-released to push it officially well past the $100 million mark, according to Wiki. It came in just behind “Driving Miss Daisy” and its $106.5 million and lagged far behind the No. 1 film of the year: “Batman” and its $251.1 million box office haul. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed for this blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via

  • Paul Linke, who is most recognized as “Officer Arthur ‘Artie’ Grossman” on TV’s “CHiPs” (click here for my look at that iconic series), plays one of Phoenix’s teachers named “George Bowman” and becomes Wiest’s suitor and father of her baby born at the end of the film. He’s also been in “K-PAX.”
  • Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, has her first appearance in a film in an uncredited bit part in a children’s play scene. Howard would later do great work, in my opinion, in “Jurassic World” (click here for my review), but fall a little more than flat in its sequel (click here for my review of “Fallen Kingdom”).
  • Directly from “Martha Plimpton was bald at the beginning of filming, because she had just finished Silence Like Glass (1989), in which she played a cancer patient. She wore a wig throughout filming, and a hairpiece, when Julie has a mohawk.”
  • Parenthood” was the first movie filmed at Universal Studios Florida and also includes a scene filmed on the center of the Gainesville campus of the University of Florida (Go Gators!).
  • Helen Shaw, who plays the grandmother, is in her final big screen effort. She would go on to one more credit on TV from 1995 and she died at 100 two years later.
  • The part played by Martin had a sterling beginning, with these sensational actors being considered for the role: Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Michael Keaton and Dan Aykroyd. Hanks and Williams? Would have been interesting. Keaton? Maybe. Aykroyd? Ah, not for this one.
  • Parenthood” is the final credit for Phoenix as “Leaf.”
  • Jeff Goldblum reportedly turned down both the roles of “Gil” and “Larry.” Thank goodness, either one would have certainly been a disappointment being portrayed by this overrated actor.
  • Finally and directly from “Frank’s classic car is a 1935 Ford Model 48 DeLuxe convertible.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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