New film parents fit old mold: They're distant, dull, inept

You Generation X'ers can let fly now. You can chortle and point and remind us that it's our turn to be painted as inept, self-consumed parents. You can even say: "Don't look now, but you've become exactly what you detested in the movies of your youth."

As proof you can point to Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "North," Ted Danson in "Getting Even With Dad," Jabba-the-Mom in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (new to video), and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the world's least fit secret-agent dad in "True Lies."


That's just the tip of the iceberg as Hollywood once again takes stock of the family unit and decrees it "Unfit for Occupancy."

Could it be? Could we boomers have matured into the ineffectual Jim Backus in "Rebel Without a Cause" or, worse, Ben Braddock's suffocating folks in "The Graduate"? For post-war audiences, Backus' well-meaning but broken father was the perfect receptacle for James Dean's anger. For the teens of the late '60s, the chirpy Mr. and Mrs. Braddock (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) were the enemy, the new defenders of the establishment.


Those kinds of parents are back -- only now they look like us, because, in the season's cruelest irony, those of us over 40 have become what we once mocked and derided.

The movie kids, our kids, are doing exactly what we once did: They're hitting the bricks (or, in the case of Johnny Depp's slow-to-rile Gilbert Grape, thinking about same).

"It's cyclical, isn't it?" says Martin Rosen, the producer of "Women in Love," "Watership Down" and "Smooth Talk" with Laura Dern. "It's the old case of 'What goes around comes around,' " Mr. Rosen points out.

New York psychiatrist Harvey Roy Greenberg, author of "Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch," agrees: "Kids rebelling against worthless parents -- it's the recurrent theme of the generations. I'm sure in Greek times children were running around wild, dirty and unkempt, and blaming their parents. If there weren't this periodic period of revolt, society would never move forward."

Hence, the latest spate of inept-parent movies. Wherever you look, kids are taking it on the lam because mom and/or dad don't have the answers. Even Simba, in Disney's "The Lion King," flees his home turf, a place of familial deceit and an ineffectual mother.

Of course Rob Reiner's current "North" is the most obvious indication that something's amiss in the family room. The character of the title, a model 11-year-old, challenges "the lords of domestic hierarchy" by becoming a free agent who will travel the globe looking for more deserving folks. North, played by Elijah Wood, takes his place as standard bearer for a new generation battling "indentured childhood."

North's main beef? His boomer parents are so self-obsessed he can't get a word in edgewise. Where's the understanding? Where's the pride in his many great accomplishments in school and on the playing field? Where's the unconditional love he was led to expect?

Mark Sway of Backwater, Tenn., may be less sophisticated than his city cousin, North, but he also craves respect in "The Client," the new movie based on the John Grisham thriller. Mark, played by newcomer Brad Renfro, is on the run from government prosecutors and Mafia hit men. He turns to his single mom for help and finds a hysterical basket-case who must be tranquilized to make it through the night. Mark's surrogate parent, a lawyer played by Susan Sarandon, has her own demons to cope with.


Dana Tasker, of "True Lies," isn't quite at this juncture yet, but she's close, as evidenced by her larcenous habits and open contempt for her old man. Dana's gripe? Dad is never around and Mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a dishwater pale reminder of a '50s sitcom mother. Dad's excuse? He's a deep-cover spy for a secret government agency. He's never around because he's battling arms traffickers and Middle East terrorists. Only Mrs. Tasker and Dana aren't in on the elaborate charade.

Though sillier in tone, "Getting Even With Dad" and "Baby's Day Out" also illustrate this theme. Macaulay Culkin and Baby Bink are, in their own way, looking for parental validation. Macaulay outsmarts his crook father (Mr. Danson) by hiding his cache of stolen coins; the adorable Baby Bink, all of nine months old, takes revenge on a world of adults who can't be bothered to cast their eyes downward. Bink's distraught mom, a selfish socialite, gets what Mr. Greenberg calls "boomer comeuppance."

Bernardo Bertolucci considers a subtler -- and, therefore, more sinister -- form of parental rejection in "Little Buddha." The kid in question, a Seattle youth named Jesse Conrad, gradually drifts from his loving biological parents toward a Tibetan spiritual father. Mr. Bertolucci is here dramatizing every parent's worst fear: It doesn't matter how caring or responsible you are. In the end, you'll be found lacking and eminently replaceable.

"What are all these movies saying?" asks director Frank Perry, known for such sensitive alienated-youth movies as "Last Summer" and "David and Lisa."

"They're saying that kids are pleading for a moral absolute, some word about what's right and what's wrong, and they're not getting it. The parents in these movies are all at sea. They're narcissistic and self-obsessed, ineffectual."

But they/we really can't be blamed, Mr. Perry adds. We're as much a product of our times as Backus' blubbering father was of his.


"Movies reflect the Zeitgeist," Mr. Perry says. "They reflect the general malaise of the time. You can't blame the parents."

Beyond this, things seemed so much simpler when he was making movies. "In the old days, it was easier to find true north, to find some moral center," Mr. Perry says. "Ask me where it is now, as we're coping with both Rwanda and the O.J. Simpson case, and I wouldn't know where to start looking."