Steve Martin plays for the camera in 'Father' but fails as parent

December 20, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

All fathers must deal with the ultimate broken heart which will, sooner or later, be administered by their daughters. That melancholy destiny is chronicled in "Father of the Bride."

Yet no matter how universal a chord it may sound in those of us lucky enough to have little girls, the movie itself is so insipidly mild it hardly exists. A remake of a storied 1950 Vincente Minnelli production -- with the legendary slow-burner Spencer Tracy and the then-nubile Elizabeth Taylor -- it offers an antic Steve Martin in the title role.

Is it impolite to suggest the film might have worked better with a real father than with the childless Martin? Really, what can he know? Thus the performance feels like it's all business, in that exaggerated, wondrously phony way of his. But he seems to have no intimate acquaintance with that tapestry of Oedipal angst and fear and longing and envy that authentic parenthood pounds into your DNA. (I thought he was fake in "Parenthood" too.)

Mostly, it's him showing off for the camera in a role so big that no one else in the film registers -- poor Diane Keaton doesn't even have any close-ups as his long-suffering, ever-patient wife. It's like she has a CNN-style gray blob blurring out her features.

The materials have only been nominally updated from 41 years ago. The movie is still set in a wondrously bland suburb that looks as if the Cleavers may yet live to the left and Jim and Betty Anderson to the right and that zany Nelson couple -- Ozzie used to be a bandleader you know, but those two boys are so cute -- across the street.

It turns on the least interesting dilemma in America today: the social strain between the really rich and the moderately rich. (Why are movies about the comfortable never interesting?) The Bankses (Martin and Keaton) are only moderately rich: He owns a wonderfully happy gym shoe plant and she also has some career (unspecified, or I missed it).

Their beautiful daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) brings home a handsome biker named T-Bone Slokowsky, who's just killed two narcs, is HIV positive, cross-dresses and has a fetish for .44 Magnums. He's also Haitian . . . NOT! No, he's a white bread computer genius named "Bryan Mackenzie" who doesn't even want to live with Annie but marry her -- in a church!

Now here's the bad news: His parents are very, very rich. And George Banks is upset? Yes, very, because -- John Steinbeck and Woody Gutherie, where are you when we need you? -- he doesn't have a pool! On the Richter Scale of domestic turbulence, this one checks in at about .000000005. It's not even a blip but a blipette.

Now, can anybody except people named Banks and MacKenzie care about a wedding between the Banks girl and the MacKenzie boy? The filmmakers certainly haven't made us. It takes us through tropes familiar primarily from Saturday Evening Post cartoons -- that font of mild middlebrow humor from the mild middlebrow '50s. It only lacks a maid named Hazel.

Martin Short outwears his welcome as a pretentious, domineering and presumably gay wedding counselor, a very swishy drip whose implied sexual preference is milked for all the cheap yuks imaginable. Williams, young and fresh and the daughter everyman could hope for, is the best thing in the picture. She's the only new thing, that's for sure.

'Father of the Bride'

Starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton.

Directed by Charles Shyer.

Released by Touchstone.



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