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"Mr. Mom" Revisited (Film Review)

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Reel Mama: "Mr. Mom" Revisited (Film Review)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Mr. Mom" Revisited (Film Review)

Recently I decided to take a walk down memory lane and revisit Mr. Mom, written by all-time eighties-fave, writer-director John Hughes, and directed by Stan Dragoti.  It’s fascinating to see how things have changed in the almost thirty years since the 1983 movie was released, and also what hasn’t.  
One of the things that resonates most about the film is that it takes place during the last great recession our country experienced in the early 1980s, which brings about the need for the gender role reversal indicated by the film’s title.  Michael Keaton’s character Jack works as an engineer in a Detroit car factory.  He loses his job because people aren’t buying American cars.  They’re buying Toyotas.  His wife Caroline (the incomparable Teri Garr) up until then has stayed home taking care of their three kids.  
The news of Jack’s job loss is not earth shattering for the family.  Resourceful and optimistic, Caroline announces that she too will look for a job.  After all, she’s got a college degree and experience in advertising.  Jack and Caroline make a bet, 100 to 1, that Caroline won’t find a job first.  Cut to the next scene: Caroline is getting dressed for work in a very spiffy high-collared polyester blend suit, and she’s leaving Jack, who’s never even done laundry before, with the kids. 
No surprise, Jack has a ginormous learning curve when it comes to running the household.  He microwaves the socks to dry them and reheats his son’s grilled cheese sandwich with an iron while remaining glued to the soaps.
It would be fascinating to remake the film today, with a few obvious differences.  Jack’s hilarious obsession with soaps, all now canceled, would be replaced with I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. When Caroline’s boss makes a pass at her, she would sue the crap out of him rather than cutting his steak out of habit like the great mom she is.  If the film were remade, the dad would have to be a workaholic, say a corporate lawyer, in order to be that clueless about what goes on in the home. 
The greatest shift is that household chores and parenting are much more equitably divided these days between moms and dads.  Maybe the film Mr. Mom can take a little credit for making it cool for dads to help around the house and take on a greater share of the child rearing back when it was still a little taboo to do that.  Today more moms are working than ever and often are the main breadwinners.  It’s not that shocking today for Dad not only to do the dishes, but to actually stay home during different periods of his child’s growing-up years, and not because he is unemployed or laid off, but by choice.  
John Hughes brilliantly redefines manliness in the course of the film.  Jack at first feels that his masculinity is threatened by his sudden status as a stay-at-home-dad.  When Caroline’s boss (the perfectly cast Martin Mull) comes by in a limousine to pick her up for a business trip, Jack enters with a running chain saw.  Talk about overcompensating.  He offers the boss a beer, then a scotch, at 7am, and shouts as the boss leaves with his wife, “If you call and I’m not here, I’ll be at the gym or at the gun club!”  By the end of the film, such posturing is no longer necessary.  Jack proves his manliness by being a great dad, taking responsibility for his family, and mastering the skills necessary to make the household run smoothly.  
[SPOILER ALERT--but since most of us have probably seen this movie, I don’t think it’s going to hurt anything...]
In a fairy tale ending Jack’s boss (the absolutely phenomenal Jeffrey Tambor) comes begging on bended knee for him to take his old job back.  With the gut-wrenching changes that American car companies have undergone, such a thing probably wouldn’t happen now.  But the ending also shows remarkable foresight for women in the workplace and work-life balance.  In the end Caroline’s boss agrees to let her reduce her schedule to three days per week, allowing her to spend more time with her family, whom she sorely missed with so much overtime.  I would have guessed that Caroline would have returned to staying home full-time, and it would have been a more predictable ending for the time.  But Caroline discovers that she loves work, and Hughes enables that character, and moms in the audience, to validate that part of themselves without the guilt.
This fun film is well worth a revisit.  So dust off that old VCR and get that musty old VHS copy out of storage. Or, if this sounds like I’m speaking Greek to you, just set your DVR to “record.”


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