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Charles Shyer’s Father of the Bride, Part II is a remake of Father’s Little Dividend, the 1951 Vincente Minnelli comedy starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. But it’s not always easy to tell.
Though Father II’s press kit says the film chronicles a “ ’90s-style mid-life crisis,” its gestalt is pure 1950s. Sure, it’s been updated: In the original, the married couples sleep in twin beds, the women put on white gloves before leaving the house, the men wear suits and ties even when playing cards at home, and everybody has a uniformed black maid. Nonetheless, the films’ similarities are more striking than their differences.
The humor in the “Father” movies relies upon Truman-era gender roles that cast women as the engineers of a domestic life in which men are, at best, grudging participants. (This perception launched a thousand TV sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, and persists in films like Three Men and a Baby, which take it for granted that men plus child-care equals laughs.) Comedy results when family life inevitably interferes with what Father wants to do—which usually turns out to be reading the newspaper in a wing-back chair. As Tracy announces early in Dividend, “Man is a delicate and sensitive mechanism—if you treat him right, if you flatter him and butter him up a little, he’s good for years.”
Of course, Dividend seems impossibly dated today, and not just because it contains lines like this one, spoken by a young husband of his wife: “I give her money, but she keeps losing it.” What’s interesting is that this neoconservative idyll of American home life is being repackaged for contemporary audiences with such success. After all, 1991’s Father of the Bride—also scripted by Shyer and wife Nancy Meyers—did well enough at the box office to warrant this sequel.
As Father II begins, George Banks (Steve Martin) has finally regained the equilibrium upset by the marriage of his daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams). But his life is disrupted once again when Annie—and, soon thereafter, his wife Nina—announces that she’s pregnant. To compound George’s misery, a dual baby shower and the construction and decoration of a “baby wing” to his house occasion the re-entry of effusive party-planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) into the Banks’ lives.
The Father II opening credits roll over what seems to be a cinematic tribute to upper-class opulence. The camera lovingly pans over the house’s exterior (the Smith & Hawken yard, the white picket fence) and interior (the fireplace, the place settings, even the neatly organized closets) before settling on George’s wing-back chair. The Banks’ affluence is alluded to again and again: When George impulsively sells his house and is forced to buy it back for $100,000 more than the sale price, he whips out his wallet and writes a check for the amount. Afterward, instead of getting a second job, he adds a wing to his house and stages a baby shower so elaborate it includes live storks. At least the film is economically as well as socially anachronistic.
Nina’s fortysomething pregnancy is one of Father II’s few concessions to modernity. Though they sleep in a double bed, George and Nina are throwbacks. When George gets home from work, for instance, Nina is not only in the kitchen cooking dinner, she’s wearing an apron and a strand of pearls while she does it. George, for his part, is depicted as the kind of domestically hapless man who’s forever yelling things like “Honey, where’re my cuff links?” These characterizations verge on parody, but the film plays it straight. It is nonetheless disconcerting to find a pair of actors the press kit calls “icons of the baby boom generation” playing Lucy and Ricky for all they’re worth.
Thank god for Short’s unintelligibly accented, limp-wristed Franck. In addition to providing the two-for-the-price-of-one opportunity to make both homophobic and xenophobic jokes, his character infuses the proceedings with some much-needed vitality. Indeed, Franck went over so well in the first film that Father II has added a second comic foreigner to the cast—a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking character called Mr. Habib (Eugene Levy). During negotiations over the sale of the Banks’ house, Habib silences his female companion with a menacing stream of Arabic-sounding syllables. George admires the effect of the phrase so much that he later tries it out on the Banks family.
Like such borderline-offensive material, the film’s gags are often as antiquated as its ambience. Every musty joke in the unfunny canon of pregnancy humor makes an appearance here: Between false alarms, the big-bellied women set George the task of satisfying their innumerable food cravings and make ungainly attempts to do aerobics. Martin does his share of physical comedy, too. One set piece pairs him with two snarling Dobermans, another with Franck’s imported sleeping pills. Though Father II’s slapstick is often funnier than its dialogue, that’s faint praise in a film that features so many anemic one-liners like “It’ll be great to see another kid in cap and gown…if we can still see by then.”
Yet the most archaic thing about Father II is its unbridled sentimentality. Somehow, the filmmakers have achieved the near-impossible task of making this film even more maudlin than its predecessor. Veterans of the first Father remake take note: The interminable slow-motion scene in which George plays one-on-one basketball with his adult daughter while envisioning her as the adorable 6-year-old she once was is reprised here. Spencer Tracy may have called his grown daughter “Kitten,” but he never did anything this mushy.CP