Thursday, November 1, 2012

Post-Halloween Neglected Gem #27: Parents (1989)

Bob Balaban moved from character actor to director with this little-seen 1989 movie, which shares a DVD with a 1990 thriller called Fear. Parents is post-David Lynch, with visual references to Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and soundtrack references to Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. It’s sensationally funny and creepy. The movie is a black-comic nightmare of growing up in middle America in the 1950s. The talented young actor Bryan Madorsky, who has enormous brown eyes, a serpentine neck, and a gaunt face that bulges above his ears, plays Michael Laemle, a Massachusetts kid who hates the Indiana suburb his family has moved to. He feels alienated in his new class (his weary teacher, wittily played by Kathryn Grody, barely submerges her disdain and condescension in pseudo-sweet commonplaces) and frightened by his sprawling split-level home, with its stucco fireplace, its deck, its barbecue, its unfamiliar “dark places.” (The art director, Andris Hausmanis, has given Balaban a real fifties special: the wall hangings – Eisenhower-era exotica – brought back my own childhood as powerfully as the recordings on the soundtrack, which include “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” “Purple People Eater,” and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.”) Michael’s dad, Nick (Randy Quaid), tells him that the only dark place he has to be careful of is his head. Beefy Nick, who looks Brobdingnagian next to Michael, doesn’t dig this skinny, meek kid, who always seems to be watching him with a mixture of curiosity and dread, and who has begun to shy away from eating the juicy red meat Nick broils on his barbecue and his wife Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) fries up on her stove. Nick can’t figure out how he and Lily could have produced this weirdo.

The outsize character actor Randy Quaid, who has comic-book features, gives himself over to this role in ways that smaller – and less courageous – performers couldn’t. This movie came out when he was at his peak, after he’d played Lyndon Johnson in the TV movie LBJ: The Early Years and right around the time he showed up as the greasy, lecherous gumshoe in Out Cold. His Nick Laemle is amazing. We see him – and everything else – through Michael’s freaked-out perspective, and Quaid is the most vivid and unsettling child’s-eye-view villain since Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes in Oliver! but a lot funnier. Watching Quaid’s Nick convey his displeasure with his son through ominous bedtime fables and vague threats, we can believe the worst fears Michael has about his carnivorous father, who stocks his cellar – his pride and joy, along with his grilling skills – with nothing but blood-red wine.

Christopher Hawthorne’s ingenious screenplay is, on one level, an extended and hilarious Freudian joke. Michiael is fond of his mother, and Lily sticks up for him when Nick starts to rant and bully, but she’s eternally allied in Michael’s mind with this monster father. Hurt wears Arthur Roswell’s riotous hausfrau dresses and scarlet lipstick with manic precision, and her line readings seem to ricochet off the walls. Mamboing through the house, laughing her high-frequency cackling-hen laugh, she’s a trim little suburban witch. One night Michael creeps out of his bedroom and peeks in on her and Nick having sex in the living room; what he sees is like a satanic ritual (their mouths are smeared with Lily’s lipstick, which also looks like blood), and it frightens him so much that he begins to draw disturbing pictures in class. So his teacher sends him to see the school psychologist, Millie Dew, who’s like some fantastically eccentric fairy godmother, sitting behind her cluttered desk, dressed like a gypsy and smoking. The way the supremely bleary-eyed Sandy Dennis plays this woman – with great charm – her sloppiness is her salvation, and she becomes Michael’s friend and supporter. His other mother substitute is Sheila Zellner, a classmate who’s just as much an outsider as he is. Sheila’s problem is that she’s too big for her age, and too mature; like Millie, she peers down at him. Juno Mills-Cockell gets at the way big girls act around little boys: bossy, maternal, and sexy in some not-quite-sure-of-what-they’re-doing way. Her scenes with Madorsky are funny in the manner of the best parts of Bill Forsyth’s teen comedy Gregory’s Girl, quirky and shrewdly observed.

Visually, Parents (which was shot by Ernest Day and Robin Videon and edited by Bill Pankow) is a collage of hypertense, hyperbolic impressions that, in the Lynch manner, sometimes teeter on the line between expressionism and surrealism but mostly fall over the edge into the latter. Michael has nightmares of drowning in oceans of blood or lying in his grave; when he hides in the pantry, the oranges jiggle malevolently and form a snake that wraps around his frail little body. The movie is loaded with shadows, but they’re not cumulous, as in film noir; the movie is crisply textured. Balaban isn’t feeling his way here; he’s already got a fully formed baroque sensibility and he does things with his camera that make you want to applaud. The movie takes a wrong turn maybe twenty minutes from the end and self-destructs, but up till then it’s richly suggestive – Nick works for a chemical company, manufacturing defoliants – and consistently startling.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Critics At Large - Long time reader/first-time poster

    Good Gravy, I love this movie. Been trying to get it for Saturday Night at the Movies because it is, as you say, a real hidden gem. I still remembe the scene where Quaid carries his son to tuck him into bed, all the while speaking to him in soothing, but entirely creepy, fatherly tones. And Sandy Dennis is so dang good as the guidance councellor (that handbag of hers!!!).

    Thank you so much for reminding me of this film.