OH, THOSE NAUGHTY EIGHTIES. The John DeLorean-Stealth Bomber-Dynasty-Gordon Gekko-Material Girl-Black Monday-Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-SDI-Ivan Boesky-Trump Tower-Trump Palace-Trump Castle decade. The decade of Nancy Reagan's $200,000 china, the Pentagon's $640 toilet seat, the country's $200 billion budget deficits. A shamelessly materialistic decade. An irresponsible decade. A morally bankrupt decade. Bad, Bad, Bad.
These are oversimplifications, but facts are facts: America's national savings rate declined by 58 percent during the 80s. And anyway, Hollywood loves oversimplifications. So it's no surprise that an avalanche of cinematically correct movies rumbled out of La-La Land in 1991, dedicated to the proposition that Homo Eightitatus was an obnoxious, Mammon-worshipping egotist. In Regarding Henry, it took a bullet in the head to turn the 80s lawyer into a compassionate human being. In The Doctor, it took a bout with cancer to cure the 80s doctor of his own chronic self-absorption. In Hook, it took a trip to Never-Never Land to cure the 80s corporate raider of his careerist monomania. In Life Stinks, the 80s millionaire didn't know what he had until he literally lost everything.
All of these movies accepted the recent verdict of Time that "...the 1980s [have] come into focus as a misguided era of borrowed luxury." All of these films self-righteously painted the conspicuous consumer of the 80s as a greedy, uncaring bastard. And all of them were boring, hokey pieces of crap that lost millions of dollars for their studios. (Except for Hook, which starred actors with big enough names to turn it into a financially successful, boring, hokey piece of crap.)
WHICH BRINGS ME to Father of The Bride, a 1991 movie which was neither boring nor overwhelmingly hokey nor crap. But--and this But has gotten me into more heated arguments in the last few months than JFK, the '92 election and the Super Bowl combined--I also think it's a pretty disturbing movie. Billed as "a comedy about letting go," Father of the Bride is the story of an immature but lovable daddy who learns that if he really cares about his daughter's happiness, he must let go--not only paternally (by agreeing to stop trying to control her) but also financially (by agreeing to stop trying to control the costs of her wedding). The explicit message of Father of The Bride--the 1950 Spencer Tracy/Elizabeth Taylor original as well as the 1991 version--is that people are more important than money, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the implicit message of the remake is that the soft budget constraints of the 80s were nothing to be ashamed of; that conspicuous consumption is not only understandable, but admirable; that people who dare to voice concerns aboutextravagant spending are irrational, insensitivegoofballs who need to be taught a lesson. And inan insidious way, it's a pretty convincingmessage.
The main plot of Father of the Bridedeals with a sneaker manufacturer named GeorgeBanks (Steve Martin) and his deep love for hismarvelous 22 year old daughter Annie (KimberlyWilliams). The general pattern of thisSilly-Daddy-Doesn't-Want-to-Lose-His-Beautiful-Baby story goes like this: First, something happensthat makes George squirm (Annie cheerfullyannounces that she's engaged; Annie's angelicfiancee puts his hand on her leg; Annie's fianceecalls George "Dad"; etc.) Then George unbuttonshis top button, makes funny grimaces and shoutsirrational nonsense. Then George's wife Nina(Diane Keaton), the film's voice of reason, tellshim to stop acting like a lunatic. Then Georgeapologizes like a good dad ("I come from a longline of overreacters") and promises to try not togo ballistic anymore. Hugs and smiles all around.
This pattern is repeated whenever George isreminded that he is no longer his daughter's hero.It's cute. It's sweet. It's funny. This pattern, Ihope, is what producer Howard Rosenman was talkingabout in the movie's press release when he saidthat "The story is a reaffirmation of commitmentto basic family values." But this pattern is alsorepeated whenever George is reminded howoutlandishly expensive her wedding will be. TheSilly-Daddy-Doesn't-Want-to-Spring-for-a-Gorgeous-Wedding plot goes like this: First, George hearsbad financial news--the wedding cake will costmore than his first car ($1200); the weddingreception will cost more than his first house($250 a head for 572 guests, $143,000); the churchwill cost extra. Then George histrionically freaksout (the unbuttoned button, the trademark Martingrimaces, the trademark Martin blather). Then Ninacalmly convinces George that he's beingridiculous. Then George apologizes for acting likea total ninny. Hugs and smiles all around.
Moral of the story: you're a total ninny if youworry about outrageous expenditures.
DO YOU THINK I'm overreacting? (I do,after all, come from a long line of overreacters.)Meet Franck (Martin Short), the Banks' vaguelyextraterrestrial "wedding coordinator."Extravagance personified. Frank is George's comicfoil. His role is to prance around the peripheriesof the Banks family like a Martian ballet danceron speed, constantly inventing innovative albeitincomprehensible ways to make Annie's "lohhhvlahwahhhdink" cost more while George winces andbellyaches about bankruptcy. (Annie is far toonice to ask for anything fancy herself. But youjust know she's beggin' for it.)
Franck always gets his way. Franck wants swansat the wedding, so the Bankses splurge on swans.Franck doesn't want "chip" chicken at the wedding,so the Bankses splurge on seafood. Franck wants torepaint the Banks' house, remove all theirfurniture, install a tulip border...you get theidea. If Annie is going to have a lohhhvlahwahhhdink, George is going to have to cough up the$1200 for Franck's kek, even though, as George soinsensitively points out, a kek is just flour andwater. "Wilcome to za Nahntees, Moostah Bahnks!"Franck cackles with tyrannical glee. So Nina tellsGeorge to stop being such a spoilsport. So Georgerelents. So Annie smiles with relief. Good boy,George.
Why does George relent? Because he cares abouthis daughter's happiness. The night after one ofhis typical whining sessions (in which hesuggested holding the wedding at The Steak Pit),he sees Annie asleep on the couch where she hadbeen reading a Modern Bride article on "How toGive a Beautiful Wedding on a Budget." Overcomewith emotion, George begins to read aloud: "Bakeyour own wedding cake...Find a good tailor andcopy a designer dress...Have a friend take thepictures." Horrified, he vows that from thatmoment on, he will "go with the flow." No more ofthis insensitive caterwauling about money. Ofcourse, George has a bit of trouble keeping hispromise. A few scenes later, Nina refuses to bailhim out of jail until he agrees to "pull ittogether," to stop hyperventilating, rolling hiseyes, unbuttoning his top button and making facesabout his daughter's astronomical matrimonialprice tag. Every eye roll, he admits, detractsfrom Annie's happiness.
When George does try to save money, itinevitably backfires on him. Instead of laying outfor an expensive Armani tuxedo at a fancy clothingstore, he buys a discount tux from a fast-talkingsheister. No difference, right? Wrong. Bigdifference. George's tux isn't even black. Ofcourse, it looked black to George, and it surelooked black to me. But everybody else can tellthat stingy George is the only character in a navyblue tux. And they go out of their way to mentionit (four, count 'em, four blue tux jokes), much toGeorge's chagrin. He shoulda known better. Georgealso skimped on parking attendants--he hired onlytwo, instead of the four Franck recommended. Sowhile his guests are enjoying the party Georgepaid for, George is stuck outside parking Beamers.He never does get a chance to dance with thebride. Serves you right, George.
MY FAVORITE MOMENT in Father of theBride takes place in the Banks' driveway onthe night before the wedding. Annie and George,unable to sleep, are discussing how difficulttheir imminent separation will be. And then itbegins to snow. The first snowfall in San Marino,California, in 36 years. George starts to speak,then stops.
"This is going to cost you more money, huh?"Annie asks sheepishly.
"No," George replies. "I was just thinking thatI'm going to remember this moment for the rest ofmy life."
Hugs and smiles all around. And they're goodhugs and smiles, because they have absolutelynothing to do with money. The hell with Franck.The hell with the swans. The hell with the tulipborders. The hell with a fancy wedding. All thatmatters is that Annie is happy, right?
Wrong. The next morning, Franck's constructioncrew melts the snow off the tulips with a blowdryer. The swans are given lukewarm baths and aredeclared ready to go. Sure, a beautiful weddingrequires love, but it requires swans, too. Thismakes sense in a Franckophilic world where theultimate badge of dishonor is a blue tuxedo, where"a commitment to traditional family values" costsnearly $150,000, where the ultimate moral maladyis an inability to "let go." Poor people can'trelate to these values? Well, let them eat kek.
A LITTLE ADDENDUM: Last week, George Bushannounced his new budget proposals, complete withan unprecedented $400 billion deficit. It markedan unabashed return to the free-spending 80s, abold negation of the economic gloom-and-doomers, arevisionist affirmation of the culture of partyingnow and paying later. Good boy, George. Wilcome tozah Nahntees.