If Seinfeld was indeed a TV show about nothing, then Ron Howard’s Parenthood is a film about nothing. And yet, in this ‘nothing’, there is everything.
Before Love, Actually and Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, Parenthood was the ensemble tale. A handful of stories running alongside each other, interlinking and united by a common theme – being a parent. Gil and Karen Buckman (Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen) struggle to deal with their young and possibly unstable son Kevin, while Gil’s sister, single mother Helen (Dianne Wiest), battles with a promiscuous teenage daughter and angsty son (a young Joaquin Phoenix). Nathan (Rick Moranis) inflicts a rather regimented and intense teaching system upon his young daughter to the disgust of his wife Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), Gil’s other sister, while Buckman patriarch Frank (Jason Robards) must deal with Larry (Tom Hulce), the final Buckman ‘child’ and the gambling addict black sheep of the family. Now that is an ensemble.
This narrative mundanity creates a relatable beauty. Life is everything, all at once – and Parenthood captures that better than any other film can. The character of Grandma (Helen Shaw) ends the film on a poignant message about life being a rollercoaster. Some don’t like roller coasters, she says. They choose merry-go-rounds, but not her. Why? Because you get more out of it. This is what life is – an exhausting up-and-down thrill ride. And you’ll struggle to find a film that shows you that better than Parenthood.
The whole cast are brilliant, and all given equal chance to shine – Martin shines in his fantasy sequences imagining different outcomes for his son Kevin’s life, while Robards’ conflicted cigar-chomping Frank is a scene-stealing presence.
With a new Blu-ray release out now, 27 years since the release, Parenthood has lost none of its appeal. Because although fashion and hair might change, family problems are timeless. As relatable as ever, Parenthood is still one of the finest ensemble films of all time.