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More Comic Relief, Please

Movie reviews: In 'Fathers' Day,' starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, the jokes are too few and far between.


Inoffensive, predictable, obvious, "Fathers' Day" is all the things a major studio comedy wants and needs to be. If you noticed that funny is not on the list, go to the head of the class.

Because humor, real humor, involves an element of daring, and, even worse, of risk. With Robin Williams and Billy Crystal as its stars, "Fathers' Day" sounds funnier than it is, which is exactly the point. For a Hollywood comedy, it's more bankable to be safe, more important to give the illusion of humor than to attempt the real thing and flirt with the possibility of disaster.

Don't misunderstand. "Fathers' Day" is not the runt of the litter; it has moments that amuse and if you're trapped with it on an intercontinental airplane, it won't be painful to watch. But this example of what happens when commercial calculation rules the day is so nakedly a machine-made product you can see the gears meshing at every turn.

Like a board of directors picked from heads of Fortune 500 companies, "Fathers' Day's" creative choices all point toward the sleek and unadventurous usual suspects, such as casting Julia Louis-Dreyfus with an eye no doubt toward her "Seinfeld" success. Director Ivan Reitman is a past master ("Junior," "Kindergarten Cop") of this kind of bland corporate comedy, and the writing team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel ("Forget Paris") are not far behind.

All these people have been funny at one time or another, but if this film is any evidence, at this point in their careers they're largely doing it by the numbers. This is comedy at its most lumbering, so slow you can practically snooze between the jokes.

Even the film's pretested subject matter of two men who both think they have the same boy for a son speaks to a lack of originality. "Fathers' Day" is based on a successful French comedy, "Les Comperes," written by Francis Veber, himself a middle-of-the-road mainstay with "The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe" and "La Cage aux Folles" to his credit.

"Fathers' Day's" initial dilemma is the disappearance of 17-year-old Scott Andrews (Charlie Hofheimer). His mother, Collette (boomer icon Nastassja Kinski, another bankable choice), thinks he's run off with a girlfriend, but since dad Bob (Bruce Greenwood) is not taking action, she moves into gear. She contacts two of her old lovers, tells each that he's the boy's father and asks for help finding him.

Dad designate No. 1, attorney Jack Lawrence (Crystal) is dubious about the project, asking for a blood test and telling Collette, "I don't find people, I sue them." But despite fears about how his new third wife (Louis-Dreyfus) will take the news, he's soon involved in the search for Scott.

Dad designate No. 2 is Dale Putley (Williams), a reformed mime, failed performance artist and avant-garde poet who is prone to getting emotional. With little to live for (Collette's phone call interrupts a suicide attempt), Putley embraces the idea that he's a dad with considerable relish.

Once they discover what Collette has done to hook them in, the pair weakly bicker about who will likely be the real dad before agreeing to join forces to find Scott. He, it turns out, has run off in search of Sugar Ray, a band with a Grateful Dead-type mobile following. Soon on the road as well is husband Bob, who decides late is better than never in the searching-for-Scott department.

Like one of those supertankers that needs a lot of warning to make a simple turn, everything that happens in "Fathers' Day" is telegraphed well in advance. Also, those who think vomiting, attacks of scalding coffee and portable toilets overturning with people in them is what humor is all about will not be disappointed here.

With Crystal's character depicted as someone who head-butts people to get out of trouble and Williams' pigeon-holed as a walking compendium of outlandish neuroses, neither actor is used to maximum benefit, though Williams does exhibit a few welcome glimmers of madness. One of the film's biggest laughs belongs to neither man, but rather to Mel Gibson making an uncredited cameo appearance as someone with so many rings in his body he looks like a human loose-leaf binder.

As has become the trend in recent years, "Fathers' Day" also dilutes whatever humor it allows in by overwhelming it with waves of sentiment, in this case scenes about the pain of having a father who doesn't listen and the importance of acknowledging parents as people.

This gets so out of hand that when one character says, "Can I give you a little bit of advice here?," it's tempting to yell, "Try to be funny, for heaven's sake." But, prepackaged and pre-sold to a large degree, films like "Fathers' Day" are taking away way too much money to listen.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sex-related humor and drug references. Times guidelines: aftereffects of excessive teen drug use.


'Fathers' Day'

Robin Williams: Dale Putley

Billy Crystal: Jack Lawrence

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Carrie Lawrence

Nastassja Kinski: Collette Andrews

A Silver Pictures production in association with Northern Lights Entertainment, released by Warner Bros. Director Ivan Reitman. Producers Joel Silver, Ivan Reitman. Executive producers Joe Medjuck, Daniel Goldberg, Francis Veber. Screenplay by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, based on "Les Comperes" by Francis Veber. Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. Editors Sheldon Kahn, Wendy Green Bricmont. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Thomas Sanders. Art director Daniel T. Dorrance. Set designer Lauri Gaffin. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

* In wide release throughout Southern California.

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