Review – Father Knows Best? (“The Father”)

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” But what if you suffer from dementia? In this harrowing film, based on director Florian Zeller’s French play, we learn that ‘real’ is just a construct.

His name is Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and, as far as we know, this elderly man lives in his very nice flat in London where his daughter, Anne (Olivia Coleman), comes to visit. But as we watch this uneasy father/daughter relationship unfold, certain things aren’t adding up. Is this his flat or hers? Anthony, you see, suffers from dementia and we see the world through his eyes. That means nothing in his world makes any sense, from his daughter telling him she’s leaving for France to get married, to Laura the care-giver (Imogene Poots) who, as Anthony keeps saying, bears a strong resemblance to his other daughter, Lucy. 

Day to day (or is it week to week?), Anthony has his routines: listening to opera, forgetting where his watch is, and occasionally seeing Anne walk through the door as a different person (Olivia Williams). Then there’s Anne’s husband, Paul (Rufus Sewell) who really doesn’t like the fact that Anthony is staying with them and would rather they ship the old man off to a local nursing home. But… didn’t Anne say the other day she had been divorced from Paul for over five years?

Anne isn’t fairing any better with her father either, as Anthony can turn on a dime with his attitude, emotions, and unfiltered mouth. He can be sweet and boisterous one second, then cruel and obnoxious the next, especially with others in the room. As the film progresses, the line between reality and sanity gets blurred as we’re never really sure what’s the truth: Anthony’s imagination or some strange combination of both. It’s a total mind-screw. With a few tweaks, this could have been a damn good Black Mirror episode. In the end, however, you get the real message, and it’s heart-breaking (get those tissues ready!).

Florian Zellar, a noted stage theater writer & director, makes his debut in film directing and doesn’t skip a beat in showing that he can handle a camera like a pro. His screenplay was also co-written by another noted stage writer, Christopher Hampton, who has written his share of quality scripts (Dangerous Liaisons, Mary Reilly). This is not your ordinary film about an elderly man, his daughter, and their relationship dealing with a mental illness. This is SO much more. Told from the perspective of the man suffering from the disease, we see and feel what he does, making it all too grim to think this might happen to us one day.

The writing is sharp, carefully thought out, and spun in such a way you’re kept off-balance until the end. Like Anthony, you never know what’s really going on and it takes an exceptional cast to pull this off. Anthony Hopkins gives a devastating, bravura, Oscar-worthy performance that is, at times, difficult to watch. Olivia Coleman is simply excellent as the struggling, caring, at-her-wit’s-end daughter that must make the hard decisions. At only 96 minutes, this movie gives you a roller-coaster of emotions, thoughts, and WTH’s as scenes play out in Anthony’s mind that we are going along for the ride.

**Now playing in theaters as well as streaming on Prime Video and other VOD

Nothing in Common (1986)

There have plenty of parent/child relationship movies. Dad, The Judge, Tribute, Driving Miss Daisy, to name a few, but waaaaaaay back in 1986, someone thought it would be interesting of getting together two of the then screen’s most prolific comedians together to do a dramedy.

Tom Hanks, who was just breaking out in films like Splash and Bachelor Party and legendary TV and movie star icon Jackie Gleason, who had just come off a string of dismal comedies (The Toy, Smokey & the Bandit 2 & 3), after scoring huge with the original Smokey & the Bandit. Sad to say, this was his final film as he was dying of terminal cancer after a lifetime of endless cigarette smoking. In this movie, Hanks plays David Basner, a lovable advertising whirling-dervish executive who’s on the cusp of getting that big promotion at work. His team, who’s like a lost SNL troop, loves this guy, along with his boss, Charlie Gargas (Hector Elizondo).

David cracks jokes, bangs women, comes up with great ideas, and has a truly great life in the Windy City… that is, until he gets word that his parents have separated. Mom (Eva Marie Saint) has split after decades of living with “that man” and can’t ever go back, leaving David to cope with his father, Max Basner (Gleason). It’s clear these two do NOT like each other! And why should they? Max is not easy to like; he’s just been fired after a 36-year job of selling out-dated kid’s wear and he’s let his diabetes run unchecked. Max also loves his cigars and talking smack about everything.

Needless to say, David has his hands full, especially during the most critical time of his life: he’s just landed a difficult account with a gigantic airline company, he’s nailing the client’s daughter (Sela Ward), AND he’s also having strong feelings for his ex-girlfriend, Donna (Bess Armstrong). Juggling the important client, keeping his precious daughter happy, making sure his presentation doesn’t fail, AND being constantly attentive to his acerbic, cranky, and unlikable father is proving to be just too much for David. But when David sees that his dad’s feet are dangerously infected, all bets are off!

Although written by one-time-only screenwriters, Rick Podell (TV The Six Million Dollar Man, Emergency!) and Michael Preminger (TV series Webster, Sesame Street), this film belongs to director Garry Marshall, whose history behind the camera is the stuff of dreams. From iconic TV series like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley to movies like Pretty Woman, Beaches, and Overboard, Marshall could mine comedy out of a shipwreck. Here, Marshall lets Hanks run free and allows him to ad-lib, be creative, and give this movie its comedy gold, which is the best/worst part about it.

For a movie that’s supposed to be about the tumultuous relationship between a father and his son, it focuses too much on Hanks and his probs at work. In fact, this easily could have been two movies: one about David Bascom and his advertising hi-jinks (which are hilarious) and another about David having to deal with his estranged father, which has its moments that are devastating. The two work against each other instead of with each other. When the comedy is flowing and ramping up, it’s suddenly stopped cold by a jarring shouting match. It just doesn’t work.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Hanks and Gleason are outstanding here, in fact, the studios lobbied hard to get Gleason his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t get it. The acting is excellent and worth a look, if only for watching a young Hanks riff with his co-stars. What’s curious is, for a movie that did so-so at the box office, a Nothing In Common TV series popped up the following year in 1987, lasted three months, and then was canceled! Well, that was unnecessary!   

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