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Movie Review: “Mr. Mom”

Movie Review:  “Mr. Mom”


By Anne Bernays


My mother (b. 1892) published articles introducing the notion that women should receive a salary for “housework.” The problem as I saw it, was who would sign the checks? The U.S. government?  The husband?  My mother also believed that women, not men, should design kitchens, since they spent by far the most time there and thus understood the physics of dishwashing and sautéing. She never lost her optimism. Secretly I thought she was half crackpot. How wrong I was!

In 1983, a comedy entitled “Mr. Mom” appeared. The screenwriter was the amazing John Hughes, whose movies. including “The Breakfast Club,” were stunningly fresh and honest and understood adolescence better than shrinks do.  “Mr. Mom” stars Michael Keaton, one of the most gifted and versatile actors, who is blessed with a talent for understated comedy.

The movie starts as husband Jack (Keaton), a design engineer, gets canned from his job. What will they do for money? The wife, played by Terri Garr, persuades Jack to let her go back to work (her own work history is somewhat fuzzy). Reluctantly, he agrees. This means that in addition to looking after three children under the age of eight, he has to do all the shopping, cleaning, meal-preparing, and other assorted tasks that we women know with fatiguing intimacy. He has no idea what he’s agreed to.  Hughes has conveniently kept the two older children out of school in order to make Dad’s job harder.

Some of the most lasting stories, both written and on the screen, have something consequential looming—past, present, or future—but directly referred to by the characters only once or twice. An example of this is “In Country,” a movie based on the stunning novel by Bobbie Ann Mason in which the war in Vietnam fuels the plot. In “Mr. Mom,” it’s the recession of the early 1980s.

A series of minor and major domestic dramas flow across the screen, each making sure that we understand—and sympathize—with Jack,  as he learns on the job  while his three kids watch him with amusement and awe. The vacuum cleaner, named “jaws” by Jack’s wife (now safely suited up at work for a lecherous boss), creates comic havoc and slapstick ensues as the clothes washer, over-soaped by Jack, wobbles before taking off across the basement floor. Everything  that can go wrong does go wrong—all of it centered on the hapless Jack who manages  to retain his natural  charm and decency. Jack starts watching a soap opera on TV and is soon hooked. Single neighborhood women come over to play poker with him, using food coupons as currency. One of them tries to seduce him. You get the idea. I suspect this would probably grow a little tiresome were it not for the comic virtuosity of Keaton, who transcends foolishness to suggest a hard truth, namely that housework and keeping children from setting themselves on fire takes courage, stamina, intelligence,  and creativity. Who knew?

Meanwhile, Jack’s wife is acing her job, blossoming under the eyes of her horny boss. While this part of the story needs to be told, it shrinks in comparison whenever Keaton has the opportunity to react to what’s going on in the house, now filled with men and women who fix household things.

Since this is a comedy, problems resolve themselves. Jack gets rehired by his old boss. With both husband and wife securely back in the rat race, they will now have to hire someone who will get paid for putting up with the demands and frustrations of housework and childcare (perhaps Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire?). I think my mother would be pleased.