In his Debut as a Feature Director, Gary David Goldberg — creator of NBC’s Family Ties — may have brought forth the ultimate tear-jerker. Dad, based on William Wharton’s 1982 novel, grafts on elements from nearly every weepie made since sound arrived. It’s Goldberg’s Frankenstein. And he labors mightily to bring the dead thing to life.
Jack Lemmon, wearing exaggerated old-age makeup to look seventy-eight, stars as Jake Tremont, a long-retired L.A. factory worker estranged from his business-exec son, John, played by Ted Danson of NBC’s Cheers. Shades of Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks in Nothing in Common. Jake is drifting into senility, like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, but his wife, Bette (Olympia Dukakis), is there to care for him in her best feisty Kate Hepburn manner, and there’s also a daughter, Annie (Kathy Baker), to pick up the Jane Fonda role as dutiful daughter. Of course, Baker and Lemmon aren’t related like the Fondas, but Goldberg makes up for that by casting Lemmon’s real son Chris as the younger Jake in flashbacks in which Jake lives a fantasy life similar to Kevin Costner’s in Field of Dreams.
Anyway, disaster strikes, as it is apt to do in such four-hankie wallows. Bette has a heart attack — a mild one like Billy Crystal’s in Memories of Me — but enough to bring sonny boy back from the Big Apple to care for his dad, just like Gene Hackman cared for Melvyn Douglas in I Never Sang for My Father. John starts thinking of his own son, Billy (Ethan Hawke), the boy he left behind when he divorced Billy’s mom to concentrate on that old demon career. It’s a spin on the Meryl Streep-Dustin Hoffman relationship in Kramer vs. Kramer. Teenage Billy wanders among friends, schools and extended trips (My Life as a Dog), until the three generations of male Tremonts unite in the face of adversity.
By the time Bette has recovered, Jake is almost self-reliant Then, bam, incurable disease hits Jake like it hit Barbara Hershey in Beaches, and Jake panics. Medical incompetence sends him into a coma, allowing Danson to scream at the doctors the way Shirley MacLaine did in Terms of Endearment. Jake rallies for a while. He buys spiffy duds like George Burns did in 18 Again! He starts jumping his wife in the sack like Hume Cronyn jumped Jessica Tandy in Cocoon. But the inevitable awaits. John climbs into the hospital bed with his dad for a hug, just like Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw did in Love Story.
Nobody says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But that’s the only sentiment we’re spared. Somebody should have apologized for this shameless waste of a gifted cast.