Wednesday, 6 August 2014

UNDERRATED: Father of the Bride Part II (1995)

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Father of the Bride Part II (USA, 1995)
Directed by Charles Shyer
Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberley Williams-Paisley, George Newbern

Back in 1995, a famous incident occurred between Steve Martin and the British comedian Paul Kaye. In his guise as Dennis Pennis, the shocking and obnoxious celebrity reporter for The Sunday Show, Kaye approached Martin during a red carpet premiere and asked the question: "how come you're not funny anymore?". Martin shrugged off the comment and walked away, but was reportedly so upset that he cancelled all upcoming press appearances.

 
While Father of the Bride Part II is not directly connected to this anecdote, it has been held up as an example of Martin's comedic decline. Like Kevin Smith after him, Martin was accused of turning his back on the edgy, smart and wacky comedies that made him a star in favour of more schmaltzy, sentimental fare. But despite Kaye's remarks and whatever low expectations we may have of the rom-com genre, the end result is surprisingly heartwarming.
 
You can understand the reservations that critics and punters alike would have going into this film. It's a quasi-remake of Father's Little Dividend, the 1951 sequel to the original Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Martin's remake of the first film had received positive reviews four years prior to this, but he hadn't produced much to inspire confidence in the meantime. Only the previous year, he appeared in Mixed Nuts, Nora Ephron's hugely misjudged remake of the French black comedy Le Père Noël est une Ordure (which loosely translates as 'Santa is a scumbag').
 
Fears are partially allayed, however, by an examination of the talent behind the camera. Writer-director Charles Shyer and producer Nancy Meyers have a good track record with these kinds of stories; not only did they helm the remake of Father of the Bride, but they were behind Irreconcible Differences and Baby Boom back in the 1980s. The latter also starred Diane Keaton and resulted in a short-lived TV series which was, at their insistence, filmed without a laughter track. This move, which is still unusual for American shows, suggests that Shyer and Meyers want to emphasise the natural aspects of a given situation rather than rely on comic contrivances to further the plot.
 
I've spoken in the past about how the likes of Saving Grace and Calendar Girls treat their older characters with great respect, in contrast to Hollywood's obsession with youth and showy glamour. And on one level, it is refreshing to find a Hollywood comedy which focusses much more on its older protagonists in a romantic manner. While the first film focussed a fair amount on the younger couple, with Martin and Keaton's scenes being built around reaction, they are very much at the centre of attention this time around.
 
Shyer's approach, however, is very different to that of Nigel Cole in the films that I've cited. Cole's films pander to convention and rely on the individual performances within them to overcome these limitations: he creates a situation based upon recognisable archetypes and then uses his actors to put meat on the bones. Shyer, by contrast, uses Martin and Keaton's natural talent, chemistry and charisma to build up empathy with them as performers, and then constructs recognisable character traits around these performances. In the wrong hands they would simply be playing versions of themselves, like a lot of American comedians in films, but on this occasion it really pays off.
 
While the film is a reasonably faithful remake of Father's Little Dividend, it differs from the original in one key plot point. Having Martin's character becoming a grandfather and a father again would have been unthinkable back in the 1950s, with Hollywood's idealisation of domesticity and set gender roles in films like Cinderella and High Society. But in the more liberal, touchy-feely 1990s, it's socially acceptable as well as being physically possible, and while it's not the first film to attempt this plot point, it is one of the more successful.
 
The film still manages to replicate all the doubts and soul-searching of the male protagonist, substituting his misplacing the baby in the original with his panicking up to and including the deliveries. Steve Martin and Spencer Tracy may have little in common besides the colour of their hair - certainly Martin doesn't have the dramatic range of the back-to-back Oscar winner. But where Tracy brought naturalism, he manages to channel his zaniness and hilarious frustation into something very tender, crafting a dramatic performance with none of the creepy overtones of his later role in Shopgirl.
 
It would have been very easy to make the central premise into a gimmick, constructing the film as a wacky comedy in which Martin's character was constantly running between two poorly written, overly demanding women. But Shyer resists going down the screwball route, giving us a respectful examination of pregnancy without over-egging the sentimentality - at least, not all the way through.
 
Toward the film's climax, however, Shyer can't resist opening the taps a little bit on the physical comedy front. There's an over-long and somewhat over-played sequence where Franck (Martin Short) has to drag George to the car after the latter has overdosed on sleeping pills, having been up all night coping with the two pregnancies. It is funny, but it feels like a very deliberate concession to a younger audience, who probably emphasise more with funny accents and slapstick than the travails of a late-middle-aged couple.
 
In a nutstell, most of the problems with Father of the Bride Part II occur when it tries to lay on the comedy a little too thickly. The most glaring example is Short, who reprises his role from the first film. Like Steve Martin, Short is a graduate of Saturday Night Live, making his name through a series of loud, in-your-face characters which challenged our notions of good taste. But while Martin has grown up and rightfully tones things down on this occasion, Short is allowed to run wild and become annoying. His character is essentially an SNL skit, and like a lot of SNL characters it wears out its welcome pretty quickly.
 
Likewise, some of the domestic comedy is a little irritating. The dinner party conversations, such as those over the selling of the house, tip over into the weaker sections of Woody Allen's back catalogue, in which the fears and neuroses of the characters make the plot come to a standstill. If you're a fan of Allen's work you'll probably appreciate these scenes a lot more, but they do come across as clunky when much of the comedy surrounding them has been warmer and more welcoming.
 
There are other issues with the film too, which are rooted more in Shyer's script than in the performers' abilities. Once the second pregnancy has been announced, the film does become extremely predictable. Admittedly we're not so constantly aware of the oncoming cliches that the plot is completely derailed, and throwing in a completely left-field twist or two could have damaged what empathy we have with the characters. But just as Annie Hall worked by not having our central pairing end up together, it would have been nice if the pay-off had come about in a slightly more original way.
 
When it comes down to it, however, there is enough emotional attachment in Father of the Bride Part II to make us overlook these little technical defficiencies. It's a heart-first film, in which we go with all the events and developments that occur even as our head compiles a list of potential objections. The scenes with George reminiscing with his now-grown daughter are really touching, as is the final sequence of him between the two waiting rooms, standing like all expectant fathers in that middle ground between abject fear and beaming pride. Special credit should go to Jane Adams as Dr. Eisenberg; she plays her part without any fuss, keeping these last scenes rooted and believable.
Father of the Bride Part II is both an enjoyable sequel and a perfectly capable remake. While many will still point to the Tracy films as superior, this is still an enjoyable and touching comedy-drama with a number of well-written characters and good performances from Martin and Keaton. Those who have no capacity for sentimentality, even when it's done properly, should probably look elsewhere for entertainment. But for those of us who don't mind giving into tears, it's time pretty well spent.

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NEXT REVIEW: Get Over It (2001)

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