While killing time waiting for the latest Saturday Night Live to begin I stumbled across something much more enjoyable than expected.
As Father Figures (2017) begins to unfold, and I saw vague resonances to other recent films I tried to imagine the conversation as the film was being pitched.
Glenn Close is playing a mom who has been promiscuous in her youth, so much so that her memory of the conception of her boys is a bit hazy: not unlike the premise for Mamma Mia, although it’s not a musical. But instead of bringing the possible dads together on a Mediterranean isle, we get a journey of self-discovery.
Owen Wilson & Ed Helms are contrasting brothers who seem estranged, driving each other a little bit crazy. It’s not so different from what we saw in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), although this time Wilson is less of a jerk, more of the silly over-the-top fount of enlightenment & wisdom he played in the Fokker films, beginning with Meet the Parents (2000).
If you recall Helms from the Hangover movies you may be waiting for the craziness underneath that is ready to erupt.
It’s a classic pattern really, this idea of a journey of self-discovery, with conflict & male-bonding, . We’re sometimes verging into territory that is uncomfortable, but this isn’t as gross & scary as some comedies I’ve seen in the past few years.
One reason it feels so fresh is that Lawrence Sher is making his directorial debut leading a strong ensemble cast including JK Simmons, Ving Rhames, Harry Shearer and Christopher Walken, in addition to Wilson, Helms & Close. Sher has recently been an Oscar nominated cinematographer for The Joker after a long apprenticeship behind the camera, that certainly earned him his shot at directing.
While there’s a lot of testosterone in the film it’s refreshing, sensitive, while dodging many of the usual pitfalls. There’s little cliché or sentimentality. I am sure they’ll let Sher direct again after a strong start.
And then there’s Justin Malen, who wrote the script.
The mystery deepens when I look more closely. Malen’s entry on IMDB mentions Office Christmas Party (2016) and Wished another 2017 film, identified as a Chinese film, and for which Malen’s credit is under the name Hongwen Mai. So perhaps his career isn’t properly documented because he has changed his name.
While it may seem to be good that he has three films opening in 2021, none of them sound terribly exciting. Two of the three (Yes Day and Clifford the Big Red Dog) seem to be aimed at children and Bad Teacher 2 is a sequel to a forgettable film. Clearly the powers that be have noticed that the man can write, and have given him lots of work, perhaps insisting that he pay his dues. But I hope someone will eventually ask him what sort of project he wants to write. Full disclosure: I love children’s films. I was musing just yesterday that Gru (the evil genius/reformed hero of the Despicable Me cycle) sounds like a kid’s version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, and thereby empowered to mangle the language in a way one never hears in the adult cinema world. I remember Clifford from numerous bedtimes with the kids, and will likely see Malen’s creation one way or another. While the industry doesn’t always seem to respect children’s literature, I’m not the industry. I love Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, The Nutcracker & anything undertaken as art or entertainment intended for children.
I believe Malen has genuine talent. While the big actor names & Ivan Reitman as Executive Producer likely helped promote the project, it was the writing that made this such an enjoyable film. You’ll hear people complain about comedies that follow the deeply worn tracks of a genre so well that there’s nothing new anymore, and then when someone tries something genuinely new they complain because it’s unfamiliar & challenging.
Father Figures isn’t a predictable film. I think I need to see it again to have a better sense of it, but it held my attention. While it was only asked to fill the time before SNL it was the highlight of the night, and has me musing the morning after.
If you get the chance to see it, I’d recommend it.