No. 9: Mr. Mom

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

It’s easy to scoff and laugh off Mr. Mom as a relic of early ’80s American culture, an artifact from the days when feminism seemed novel and subverting gender roles was still actually had some shock value to it. It’s true, the basic premise of Mr. Mom, the massively successful comedy starring Michael Keaton as a “stay-at-home dad”, wouldn’t be considered very fresh or novel today. And yet recent reports have MGM planning a remake, not so surprising in an age where just about every film successful or otherwise gets remade but noteworthy enough that it’s worth considering why MGM feels this premise still has some relevance to 2011 audiences.

Mr. Mom was one of two extremely successful screenplays in 1983 from a then largely unknown John Hughes (the other being National Lampoon’s Vacation) and while Vacation’s screenplay became a somewhat twisted, highly irreverent movie, the similarly family-oriented screenplay for Mr. Mom became a much more family friendly finished product. While Mr. Mom doesn’t exactly fit in with the teen-oriented films Hughes would become known for in the years following, there are a lot of similar themes in Mr. Mom including the basic idea of exploring the stresses and anxiety that come along with traditional domestic life in America. While the trials and tribulations of upper-middle class white teenagers doesn’t seem like compelling drama, it’s something that audiences (particularly the ones that went to the movies a lot) could identify with and the same is true for the audiences that shelled out $64.7 million to see Mr. Mom in 1983. Despite the sometimes wacky nature of the comedy here, there’s something that resonated with what audiences were going through in their own lives.

It’s a recession-era story (another thing that makes it play well in 2011) about a Detroit auto engineer played by Michael Keaton who loses his job. He and his industrious wife (Teri Garr) both set out to find jobs and she happens to find one before he does, a pretty good job in fact that’s capable of supporting the family. Keaton’s character Jack suffers the predictable indignities of domestic life as he learns to take care of cooking, cleaning and taking care of their three kids but deals with a couple of other less predictable obstacles as well. For one, Jack’s neighbor Joan (Ann Jillian) is attempting to seduce him and while Jack’s a good guy, her advances start to get to him before long, culminating in a fun dream sequence that mixes Jack’s personal fears and desires with his new obsession with soap operas.

Jack’s marriage faces a threat on the other side of the aisle as well (though not much of one) in the form of his wife’s creepy boss played by Martin Mull. In the race for the top “’80s douchebag” of the year, Mull’s character here makes a compelling case as he walks the fine line between legitimate threat to Jack’s manhood (as seen in the scene below) and creepy mustachioed lecher as we see later in the film.

As you would expect with a major studio comedy, the film is littered with nice supporting performances, including Jeffrey Tambor as the bumbling executive at Jack’s auto company, Christopher Lloyd in a very brief role as a co-worker of Jack’s and character actress Miriam Flynn (who steals the show as Cousin Eddie’s wife Catherine in National Lampoon’s Vacation) as one of Jack’s female neighbor friends.

Obviously, the movie lives and dies with the casting of its two leads and I think with all due respect to Hughes’ screenplay, the movie’s lasting success today is owed almost entirely to Keaton and Garr. While Keaton had been working regularly in TV (including two starring sitcom roles) it wasn’t until 1982 that he really became a legit threat as a movie star with a breakout performance in Ron Howard’s offbeat comedy Night Shift. That role landed Keaton the lead role for Mr. Mom, a major opportunity for him and a role that ultimately catapulted him to becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood for the next ten years or so. As for Garr, she was already well established having made her name in a number of the biggest films of the ’70s and early ’80s, particularly the massively successful Tootsie the year before which dealt with similar themes of changing gender roles and women in the workplace and which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Garr is probably the most likable and believable comedic leading lady I’ve seen to date in 1983. Like most great leading women of their day, her combination of intelligence and general likability made her appealing to the female audience and while she certainly wasn’t a bombshell, she had the girl next door appeal (or in this case ‘wife next door’) appeal that made her a hit with men as well.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the comedy in Mr. Mom, though at the time I have to believe it was a pretty early example of a mainstream comedy (as opposed to a wacky, Airplane! style parody) using references to other fairly recent Hollywood films. The references to Jaws and Chariots of Fire, while both completely overdone and played out today, were pretty timely and fresh in 1983 and in fact the Chariots of Fire scene in Mr. Mom is one of the better comedic uses I’ve seen of that memorable Vangelis score.

The fact that Mr. Mom seems to work so well today despite the fact that there’s nothing particularly original or compelling about its premise along with the fact that director Stan Dragoti never really reached the same level of success again with his subsequent comedies like The Man with One Red Shoe or Necessary Roughness both speak to the fact that this movie’s success is all about John Hughes’ impressively sharp screenplay and the charm of its lead actors Michael Keaton and Teri Garr. If MGM does go through with its planned remake, the casting of those two leads along with the need for a smart, perceptive screenplay will be just as crucial to the movie’s success.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Mr. Mom (with guest Francesca Scalici)

Next Up: John Travolta is back as Tony Manero, only this time he’s wearing spandex. It’s the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, the 1983 hit Staying Alive.