Monday, July 22, 2013

Mr. Mom's Missed Opportunity

Thirty years ago, when "Mr. Mom" made its first appearance on America's movie screens, it may have been an accurate depiction of gender roles in society — but I have my doubts.

The family in the movie had a husband (Michael Keaton) and a wife (Teri Garr) and their three children. That's pretty close to the demographic average in America at that time, I suppose.

When the movie began, the obvious daily routine was that the husband went to work and the wife stayed home with the kids.

That rang true for me because that is the way my home was, at least through the first half of my childhood, but then the economy forced my mother to re–enter the work force. As I remember, it was like that for most of my friends — well, the ones whose families still had two parents in the household (and that number dwindled as I got older).

When I was small, it was normal for mothers to stay home. Most did. A few worked outside the home, and that too may have been of economic necessity, but my recollection is that the perception was that a woman was working because it fulfilled her in some way, not because a second income was needed.

But, at some point in my childhood, it became more difficult, if not impossible, for a family to survive on the father's salary alone. Then it became more common for children to come home from school to an empty house, as my brother and I did, and we were expected to do certain things to help with the general maintenance of that house since Mom was no longer at home during the days.

In "Mr. Mom," Keaton's character was fired, and Garr's character went out into the world to be the breadwinner. Keaton's character stayed at home and looked after the children.

I don't really recall a family in my own life that was like the one in "Mr. Mom." That doesn't mean there weren't any families like that. It only means that none of the children in my circle of friends came from such a household.

But that wouldn't really have been relevant, as I say, after a certain point. My friends and I grew accustomed to the idea that no one's parents were at home when school ended for the day.

And that, I think, made "Mr. Mom" a quaint relic of a family unit that didn't really exist in 1983 — if it ever existed to begin with. When the movie began, the family resembled TV families of the '50s and '60s more than it did real families of the '70s and '80s.

I happened to catch a broadcast of "Mr. Mom" on cable about a month ago, and I remembered that it did rather well at the box office. I think I saw it for the first time when it was at the theaters, but that has been a long time so I decided to watch it again to refresh my memory. It was interesting to watch it through 21st–century eyes.

The script by John Hughes was turned into a movie a year before Hughes' directorial debut. Its success — along with the success of another Hughes–penned movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation," that premiered a week later — propelled him into the directorial career that was his for the rest of his life.

If this movie was remade in 2013, my feeling is that it would be more balanced to show the challenges faced by each spouse. Surely there would be many for a formerly domestic woman in the cutthroat business world trying to support her husband and children, and, to be fair, some of those challenges (like what is called sexual harassment today) were explored — but not all.

Actually, comparatively little attention was paid to what Garr's character was facing. Most of the movie — as the title suggests — was about Keaton's transition and the obstacles he encountered — like trips to the grocery store and visits to public restrooms.

Well, that is acceptable, I suppose. I mean, the movie was billed as a comedy, and those scenes were played mostly for laughs. Slapstick, actually.

And the humor derived from the reversal of traditional roles. But, even though the women's liberation movement had been active for about 15 years and it had clearly influenced parts of the culture, the emphasis was still on the father's difficulties in adjusting to domestic life. I remember finding that interesting at the time.

I suppose the really interesting thing — well, let's say the most telling thing — is that Mr. Mom rather quickly became a cultural cliche, much like Groundhog Day did after the movie of that name was in the theaters. I heard several stay–at–home dads called Mr. Mom. Perhaps one or two were, like Keaton, fired from their jobs; the rest were graduate students.

I have never heard the female equivalent in such a relationship (whatever the reason for it) called a Ms. or Mrs. Dad.

An interesting footnote here. When the movie ended and the credits rolled, viewers saw a broadcast of the TV commercial that Garr's character had helped to produce. Moviegoers saw little of what Garr's character went through to get her commercial made. Mostly what they saw was Garr's initial pitch in the conference room, and the mostly negative response she received.

There were all sorts of plot opportunities — along with the opportunity to learn something of substance about Garr's character — that were missed. But, as I say, the movie was about Mr. Mom.

In 1983, "Mr. Mom" was greeted as an entertaining story, not a bad way to spend 1½ hours on a hot summer day.

Today, though, I think it might be criticized for social insensitivity.