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A Small Boom in Visiting the Sins of the Fathers

Movies* As baby boomers wrestle with parenting, films focus on the theme of dads atoning for failures.


In the coming film "The Royal Tenenbaums," Gene Hackman plays a divorced father of three grown and resentful children. When he attempts to win their love through a self-serving ruse, they wonder why they should forgive his failures. "Can't somebody be a [jerk] their whole life and try and repair the damage?" he asks.

It's a question on the minds of filmmakers these days as some recent movies take on the collective guilt of an aging generation trying to pull off parenthood at the eleventh hour. In these films, those seeking to atone for past mistakes tend to be fathers, either divorced, dying or both, who have quite a bit of emotional damage to make up for.

Three fall films illustrate this point: In "Life as a House," Kevin Kline is a divorced and dying father who tries to connect with his alienated son by building a house with him. In "My First Mister," Albert Brooks plays a divorced man who learns that he is dying and that he has a 19-year-old son. Even "K-PAX," a movie about a psychiatric patient claiming to be a planetary traveler, has a subplot involving a divorced psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) reconciling with an estranged son from his first marriage.

"It's boomerism," said screenwriter Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Practical Magic"). "Here we all are at middle age. We look back and say, how could it have been different?"

Swicord herself is expanding the genre to include mothers and daughters; she's adapting Lisa Carey's 1999 novel "The Mermaids Singing," which deals with a young grandmother who wants to raise the daughter of her own recently deceased daughter. "This was a daughter she hadn't seen in 15 years. She has the opportunity to remake the past by becoming the mother she never was," Swicord said. The movie is scheduled to begin filming in Ireland next summer.

Remorse and the quest for redemption through family forgiveness are age-old themes in life and literature. When people are dying, lonely or sick, they naturally feel an urge to attach or reconnect to people they have harmed, psychologists say. "Toward the end of life, there's a need to be forgiven, to have your victim say it's OK," said David Gutmann, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and author of "The Human Elder."

There's no hard evidence to suggest that urge is more or less common than it's ever been. However, the recent spate of movies does address the tumultuous social issues of the baby boomers--namely divorce, single parenthood, blended families and unmarried parents--that over the past three decades have settled into the norm. While rates of divorce and unwed childbearing have declined, about half of all children will live with a single parent at some point in their lives, demographers say. Only 7% of families are headed by a stay-at-home mother and a breadwinning father, according to the latest census figures.

For several years, fractured, if not necessarily dysfunctional, families have become the baseline for many family-related shows on television and in the movies, from "Once and Again" to "Stepmom," "24" to "Domestic Disturbance." Now, the fictional families are finding new ways to reconnect. Despite or because of the cultural shifts, yearnings for family healing are particularly popular among boomers, social historians suspect.

Rarely, if ever, has there been a generation as hyper-conscious about its parenting, as aware of its mistakes and as confident in its ability to undo them. "We always think we have a second act," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of Princeton University's National Marriage Project. "Redemption is in the air," she said.

Kline's angry misanthrope George Monroe, for instance, doesn't realize how badly he's behaved until the day he's fired from his job and also learns he has terminal cancer. Then, the emotionally distant dad shifts into high gear, taking charge of his home building project in Laguna Beach to make his son love him before it's too late. The project ultimately affects not only the son, but also his ex-wife, her new family and the single mother next door.

"There's no real good family in the movie," said "House" co-producer Rob Cowan. "But at the end of the day, they were able to act like a family, even if they're not all living together."


Given the boomers' reputation for narcissistic self-involvement, the films might naturally be assumed to reflect vestiges of their it's-all-about-us attitude. Notoriously critical of their own World War II-generation parents, they were represented in the 1967 hit movie "The Graduate" by Dustin Hoffman, who preferred to sit in scuba gear at the bottom of his parents' swimming pool rather than listen to them talk about his future in plastics. Now that they've made their own parenting mistakes, it's believable that boomers would want to tell the story from their point of view and exonerate themselves.

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