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Fall Sneaks

Life without father

Unlike Nemo and his dad, human beings in several new films have a hard time repairing parental relationships.

September 07, 2003|Bill Desowitz | Special to The Times

For all the ticks and neuroses Nicolas Cage exhibits as guilt-ridden con artist in Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men," nothing compares to the anxiety attack he has while waiting to meet his troubling teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) for the first time. Yet soon after, Cage has tapped into a whole new confidence game as a result of their stimulating interaction.

Likewise, there's a wonderfully unexpected moment in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" when Bill Murray opens up to Scarlett Johansson about the joys of fatherhood during their brief encounter in Tokyo. He plays a burned-out movie star shooting a whiskey commercial -- estranged from his wife and children -- and she plays a twentysomething hooked on philosophy and neglected by her husband.

Both are plagued by insomnia and instantly hit it off during a chance meeting in their hotel, then discover new possibilities as fish-out-of-water in the bustling neon metropolis.

But in between their excursions, during a quiet, vulnerable conversation, the actor humanizes his character with his own take on fatherhood, transcending the script, and transforming the re-energized man he plays into a sage and father figure. "It's the most terrifying day of your life the day the first one is born," Murray improvises before adding the blissful fillip, " ... and they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."

These are not isolated incidents. Fatherhood pervades movies in the fall lineup and beyond with imperative force. Michael Caine and Robert Duvall play eccentric and curmudgeonly brothers in "Secondhand Lions" who discover a sense of paternal purpose when they become caretakers for their abandoned nephew (Haley Joel Osment). By contrast, the absence of fathers is keenly felt in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," in which Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon are clueless about exorcising demons from their past and saving their own kids from the same cycle of violence and despair.

And think back to last year, when fathers or father figures figured so prominently in "Road to Perdition," "Minority Report," "Gangs of New York," "Catch Me If You Can" and "Evelyn." Disconnected from their children, preoccupied with their professions, which were often dangerous, damaged men were pressed into action to fulfill their paternal duty.

It's no coincidence that "Finding Nemo" is 2003's most successful film. Aside from Pixar's gorgeous computer animation and great storytelling, the poignant father-son theme resonated with viewers young and old. Then came "The Hulk," "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Seabiscuit," which explored the dark side of fatherhood that neglect and tragedy reveal.

Is it any wonder that Gregory Peck's beloved Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird" was recently voted the No. 1 hero in the AFI's latest 100 greatest poll?

In search of a parent

THERE'S definitely something about fatherhood in the cinematic ether. Call it a Sept. 11 wake-up call, backlash against the breakup of the family unit, the result of boomers grappling with mortality or that life has become too overwhelming to process without the guidance of a paternal elder.

"Seabiscuit" writer-director Gary Ross sees fatherhood as the movie's emotional center. "Red [Pollard, the jockey played by Tobey Maguire] was abandoned at a young age during the Depression because his parents couldn't afford to feed him. [Charles] Howard [the Seabiscuit owner played by Jeff Bridges] lost a child in an automobile accident, basically to the very machine and technology that had allowed him to become a self-made millionaire. What moved me was the opportunity to write about the need that these guys had to re-engage life in a way and get a second chance."

Emotional awakenings and spiritual rebirth are at the core of the current emphasis on fatherhood. "Bo Goldman [who scripted "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"] once said that every great movie is about finding your father," said "Mystic River" scribe Brian Helgeland. "In this film, you feel the absence of fathers in the three lead characters. It's never talked about, but it haunts the story. The [Boston] neighborhood becomes a kind of substitute father.... It's a dangerous place if you don't fit in."

The absence of fathers is confronted more directly in "Secondhand Lions," reminding us that it's an age-old problem rooted in the Bible, "Oedipus Rex" and "Hamlet."

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