Deadbeat Dad

In 1991's Father of the Bride, doting suburban white-bread proto-papa George Banks (Steve Martin) went deeply into debt to stage a perfect wedding for his suddenly all-growed-up little girl Annie (Kimberly Williams). Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) sighed a lot and tried to allay her husband's anxieties. In the newly released (and oh-so-imaginatively titled) Father of the Bride Part II, doting suburban white-bread proto-papa George Banks (Steve Martin again) emerges from debt only to learn that his suddenly all-growed-up little girl (Kimberly Williams again) is pregnant. Levelheaded Nina Banks (Diane Keaton again) sighs a lot and tries to allay her husband's anxieties. Then comes the movie's big surprise twist -- Nina finds out that she is pregnant too!

I can't remember the last time I saw a movie this white. The film's villain A and only person of color other than a mover who doesn't speak and a hospital orderly who utters one line A is a real estate speculator named Mr. Habib (Eugene Levy), whose evildoing consists of buying the Banks's home at a fair price only to resell it to a desperate George Banks one day later at a $100,000 markup. (George actually pleads, "Don't bulldoze my memories, man.") Boo, hiss A those greedy Arabs! From the Banks's immaculate, achromatic home to Nina's wardrobe to the screenplay's predictably plain-vanilla humor to the pale skin of every major character, Father of the Bride Again couldn't present a snowier, more cliched view of tree-lined Middle America if Norman Rockwell, Pat Nixon, Bob Dole, and Billy Graham had collaborated on the screenplay. Ozzie and Harriet would be too ethnic for this neighborhood. It takes some doing to out-white Opie -- I mean, Ron Howard -- but Return of Father of the Bride makes even Parenthood (Howard's paean to family values) look positively daring and cosmopolitan by comparison.

That is, when it isn't flat-out ripping off Parenthood. Remember Parenthood's central metaphor, which equated raising kids with riding a roller coaster? Father of the Bride Redux opens with George Banks invoking that same metaphor while recapping the past year's events in a monologue delivered directly into the camera. Remember the wacky dance of ecstasy Steve Martin did after his struggling little leaguer made the big play in Parenthood? He does a variation of the same dance here after regaining possession of his home from Mr. Habib. And then there's the two-generations-of-mothers-giving-birth finale, not to mention the kids-are-tough-but-worth-it theme. And the most obvious similarity between the two films -- casting Steve Martin as Top Dad.

Maybe the Bride's Dad Revisited husband-wife writing-directing-producing team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers rented a video of Parenthood, fell asleep while watching it, and wrote Daddy's Girl Gets Knocked Up when they awoke -- without realizing where the inspiration came from. Myers and Shyer haven't yet cornered the market on shallow, contrived, simple-minded, oversentimentalized comedies, but not for lack of trying. Before hooking up with Ms. Meyers, Mr. Shyer's writing credits (and I use the term "credits" loosely) included Smokey and the Bandit, Goin' South, and House Calls. Since 1980 the pair's joint productions have yielded enough saccharin to give a bull elephant cancer. The typical Meyers-Shyer projects boast an easily grasped but thin-as-toilet-tissue premise: Private Benjamin (cute JAP joins the Army); Irreconcilable Differences (cute-but-bickering couple'scute ten-year-old daughter sues them for divorce); Baby Boom (cute and ambitious female executive inherits a baby); and I Love Trouble (cute reporters become lovers).

Meyers-Shyer's first visit with the Banks family wasn't even an original idea; it was a remake of Vincente Minnelli's touching 1950 comedy Father of the Bride, which starred Spencer Tracy. To view Minnelli's original and then chase it with Meyers-Shyer's remake is to understand the difference between the words wit and schmaltz. Minnelli, Tracy, and company followed up their Father of the Bride with Father's Little Dividend, wherein Tracy's little girl A played by Elizabeth Taylor! A bears a child. (Meyers and Shyer tried to go their predecessor one better by grafting on the late-40-somethings-can-have-kids-too story line to enhance topicality, but the development, while admittedly representative of an increasingly common real-life trend, comes across as completely contrived here A more like a transparent marketing gimmick than a natural chapter in a believable story.) I'm not sure whether that makes the new film a remake of a sequel or a sequel to a remake. Either way, this is a fourth-generation Father.

How many Fathers spoil the broth? No matter. This tepid soup never had a chance to really cook. Every film Meyers and Shyer make plays like a pilot for an insipid TV sitcom. (Did somebody mention Private Benjamin again?) Chokingly precious. Derivative. Bravely reinforcing the status quo. The only thing this duo's films lack to function as small-screen fare is a laugh track. Why anyone would pay to see one of them in a theater is beyond me.

Then again, maybe your idea of big fun is the insufferable Martin Short mincing about as an effeminate (read: gay) interior designer named Franck (pronounced "Frohnk"), or George Banks passing out when he learns his wife is pregnant, or the mixup at the hospital that results in George receiving a prostate exam (Meyers and Shyer know there's no such thing as too many finger-up-the-wrong-butt jokes).

Thank God for Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. They lend a semblance of substance to a movie that, without them, would have none. At times Martin's performance feels muted; at other times he seems over the top. He's still the best thing about F2. Keaton possesses neither Martin's manic energy nor his flair for physical comedy, but she maintains a calm at the center of this cornball storm. They offer welcome relief within a movie choking on its own fluff and padding. Take the pair away and this Father knows bust.

Father of the Bride Part II.
Written by Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer; directed by Charles Shyer; with Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberly Williams, and Martin Short.

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