The Film and Performance:
A melodrama has the capacity to tug at our heartstrings and remind the viewer to value the small things we all may take for granted. 1942’s Now Voyager is the quintessential melodrama that arguably created this sub-genre. In its plot, Bette Davis’ Charlotte Vale is introduced as a submissive woman who has long been controlled by her domineering mother. Charlotte is mentally unstable, and worse (by the era’s standards), unattractive. However, with the help of a noble doctor, Charlotte finds herself evoking a new free-spirited side of herself, and through that discovery, finds beauty inwardly as well as outwardly. Now Voyager also introduced the concept of voyeurism, to which the audience is essentially spying on the private life of an individual. The audience sees beyond the exterior character and gets entry into “behind closed doors” instances. Furthermore, Now Voyager was a film that told the story of an individual’s liberation by breaking past the societal expectations inflicted on her and instead living one’s life as she saw fit. Now Voyager was a revolutionary film whose foundation is still used in contemporary films.
1989’s Dad recycles this plot device and the concept of voyeurism from Now Voyager by flipping the protagonist’s gender and having the submissive character be Jack Lemmon in the role of Jake Tremont, a helpless elderly man who has long been controlled by his wife (played by Olympia Dukakis). When Jake’s wife suffers a heart attack, his son, John Tremont (Ted Danson) arrives and begins to offer his father the liberties he has long lost, to which his father becomes a liberated individual. This is the foundational plot of the film before it delves deeper into the melodrama component of the film by throwing in themes of mortality, sickness, hospital care, and family bonds.
The problem with Dad is that it is an untamed melodrama. Worse, it is a melodrama that is so determined to make its audience feel something that it’s almost hysterical in its narrative. The film lacks any subtlety, making each of its scenes obvious in their intentionality, which was to demand the audience feel one way or another. The film lacks any dimension, especially in character development. Characters throughout the film were mere stock-characters, who functioned within the film to exhibit a certain personality. Once that character contribution was made, the character immediately faded to the background. This caused the movie to feel packaged. The term “Hallmark movie of the week” best describes how this film is offered to the viewer. The film is a sugary, family-oriented film with multiple issues thrown into the plot to cause disarray, to which the characters overcome them, and learn life lessons in the process. Sound generic? That’s because it is. Dad is predictable, cliché, and almost ridiculous in its plot.
This is largely the fault of writer/director Gary David Goldberg, whose career as a television sitcom director becomes glaringly obvious due to his inability to effectively direct this drama. The film suffers from four fatal flaws that are all the fault of Goldberg. The first is a complete lack of continuity with the film. Upon introduction of Jake Tremont, the character is introduced as so submissive that I thought for the first forty minutes of the film that the character suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. The character is described by others as “confused” and Danson’s John Tremont is instructed how to talk to his father, which further places Lemmon’s character within that context. This is practically reinforced with John teaching his father how to do laundry and even writes him place cards with step-by-step instructions on how to wash the dishes (“Step One: Put water in sink…”), to which Lemmon’s Jake Tremont responds with genuine interest. This seemed to directly indicate that the character was at least senile and unable to function in daily life without assistance.
The film crafts the character in such a manner, but then completely contradicts this premise by having the character suddenly becoming lucid in his understanding. This contradiction is especially obvious when John Tremont encourages his father to re-learn how to drive his car on his own, to which he ultimately gets his driver’s license. The issue with this is that the viewer is expected to disregard the feebleness and helpless demeanor Jake Tremont is introduced as being. Considering Jake is confused his wife is having a heart attack at the beginning of the film, how is the viewer expected to believe that he is suddenly coherent enough to drive a car on his own? This is a severe continuity issue. But worse is the insinuation that comes from this: love can defeat illness. The film narrative practically shouts to the viewer that love can conquer anything, even a debilitating mental disease that takes away one’s cognitive functions.
This goes back to the issue of the film lacking any form of subtlety, which is the film’s second fatal flaw. It is obvious Gary David Goldberg wanted to expose hospital inefficiency within this film in a way to make the audience rally with the characters and demand medical reform. While the medical field has many flaws and it is absolutely true that reform is needed, especially today, Dad goes about this message in a deliberately overdone way that can be best described as melodrama on steroids.
While there are so many methods to go about this message, the hospital’s evildoing was merely informing Jake Tremont that he has cancer, to which his health falters almost immediately as a result of this news. Of course, Ted Danson’s John Tremont becomes hysterical (“How could you tell him that!?”) and blames the hospital for anything that subsequently goes wrong with his father. Two issues with this: 1. It is a morally wrong for a hospital to not inform someone they have cancer, therefore the hospital is in the right in this scenario., 2. If the first half of the movie was about John building his father back up to being lucid and functional in society, isn’t it a contradiction to suddenly proclaim his father is too weak to hear such news? Of course, this doesn’t stop the film’s most dramatic and grossly overdone scene where John is fed up with the hospital’s evil practices, tears his father from his hospital bed, and carries his helpless father out of the hospital in his arms. The imagery of Ted Danson holding a cowering Jack Lemmon in his arms to the heroic music score blaring, it practically rubs the message of the film in the viewer’s face without shame.
This comes back to the overdone melodrama, which is the film’s third fatal flaw. With the hospital scene being the penultimate moment of drama, let’s take a closer look at the overall issues the film attempts to tackle. First, Lemmon’s Jake Tremont’s ascent from disability to being able-bodied. Then, he finds out he has cancer, there’s the hospital negligence sequences, to which the character ultimately goes into a coma. He awakens from the coma to find himself renewed and wanting to live life to the fullest, which disrupts the complacent life his wife has established for them. After a predictable sentimental moment between them and a dance, all is well until it is unveiled Jake is suffering from a rare form of schizophrenia. This is a temporary issue until John demands everyone allow his father to believe his imagery world, which isn’t exactly a solution to treating schizophrenia, but are we honestly being picky at this point? Of course, this excludes the grand-finale ending of melodrama the movie concludes with, but nonetheless, this is untamed melodrama at its worst. If a viewer goes through the laundry list of issues that occur throughout the plot, the movie becomes ludicrous almost immediately.
Of course, the acting could have been the saving grace of this film, but even that falls flat. It is shocking to acknowledge this, but Dad is a melodrama without any emotion in it. With the exception of Jack Lemmon and Olympia Dukakis, the entire cast is monotone and delivers their dialogue with the same stonefaced expression throughout the film. This leads to the film’s fourth fatal flaw that guaranteed the film’s failure, which was the miscasting and horrendous acting from Ted Danson. Bluntly said, he is terrible. Ted Danson failed to represent the character as anything other than the gallant hero trying to save his father. There are references that his John Tremont is a workaholic executive, but that’s never conveyed in the acting. In fact, Danson’s acting suggests the character is accommodating and willing to sacrifice for others, which goes against how the film was desperately trying to frame the character as someone who endures a character change in himself. But worse was any scene with Ethan Hawke (who stars as his son) and his attempt to reestablish a relationship with him. In a scene with his son that was supposed to be poignant, emotional, and coming from the heart, Ted Danson delivers a monologue about his past regrets without ever showing any emotion on his face. The scene was so glaringly bad that it nearly became laughable. It is very evident Ted Danson went about this role solely as the savior character, which diminished the character having any dimension at all.
In this disaster of a movie there is, thankfully, something worth acknowledging. That is Jack Lemmon and Olympia Dukakis, both of whom are beacons of light in this shallow, uninspired film. In a role that was determined to make her character unlikable, Dukakis’ acting actually defies the script. Her portrayal as Jake’s wife is not the ‘I-only-care-about-me’ cliché, but instead framed as the ‘I-want-the-best-for-my-husband’ character-type. The movie tries desperately to craft her character as the enabler of Jake’s illness, but Olympia Dukakis is highly effective in avoiding that characterization by providing her character with much needed sympathy and understanding. Unfortunately as a result of this, her acting contradicts the plot of the film. However, Dukakis must be commended for giving the character much needed humanity. It is especially remarkable that Dukakis was able to achieve that with very little screen time in contrast to Ted Danson, who chose to do nothing with a role that occupies practically every scene of the film.
Regarding Jack Lemmon, he was fortunate that he had enough to work with to craft a genuine identity with his character. While the film is a melodramatic mess, Lemmon’s performance is the only thing that holds the shattered remnants of what could have been a movie together. Considering he is the focal point of the film, Lemmon offers the character a genuine metamorphosis within the confines of the script. His performance is the only one instilled with raw emotion, mostly in the illness scenes, which provided the character with some much needed realism. Yet the flaw of the performance is not necessarily with Jack Lemmon but with the poor script and the terrible direction of the film. What could have been a stellar performance is twiddled down to a mere average one. Without any other attribute of the film worth noting, the performance becomes forgettable.
Dad is a film that could have been brilliant, thought-provoking, and stunning in its storytelling. However, by avoiding any form of restraint, the film is a cluster of uncontrolled melodramatic narrative instances that took the film hostage and the ransom was demanding the audience feel something while watching the film. As a result, we don’t and the film fails in everything it strived to be. To summarize it in one sentence: Dad is an awful, poorly constructed film.