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Fathering? Now that's funny!

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06/11/2012

Paul Wieder photo2

Much has been written about women being stereotyped in popular entertainment. Well, men get stereotyped, too. And one of the most common ways is to laugh at the idea of men… taking care of kids! Ha! Because men are basically just big kids themselves! Am I right? Am I right or what? Men are just big, dumb idiots who have no idea how to handle a baby or kid alone.

So let's take a look back at some of the movies where the basic hilarity is the very idea of men taking care of children and babies by themselves. Somehow, men can run dry cleaning services but can't do laundry. They can be "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef," but can't make dinner. They can clean up toxic waste and nuclear meltdowns, yet can't vacuum a rug. And men can perform brain surgery, but can't change diapers. Amazing.

There are two basic premises. One is the businessman who can't find time for his own kid, and then suddenly finds he has all the time in the world, because he gets fired. This was the set-up for one of the first dumb-dad movies, Mr. Mom (1983). And if one incompetent dad is funny, three are three times funnier! This is the logic behind 3 Men and a Baby (1987) with Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg, and Tom Selleck.

These were followed by Carpool (1996) in which beleaguered businessman David Paymer has his minivan carjacked by a loveable Tom Arnold. The more famous Daddy Day Care (2003) had Eddie Murphy and Jeff Garlin as laid-off dads opening a daycare center. Daddy Day Camp (2007) with Cuba Gooding, Jr., was the sorta-sequel… but Murphy's own next stab at the idea included a magical element. Imagine That (2009) gave Murphy's daughter the ability to see the future, including financial futures. Cha-ching!

One of the few dramas with this structure is one of the first dad-takes-care-of-kid-alone movies of all: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). This classic has Dustin Hoffman learning to take care of his son after his wife leaves. It's not a comedy, and one of the only times in Hollywood history this plot has been done as a drama, but Hoffman still sucks at dad-hood for much of the run-time.

The other major premise is the action hero playing against type. He can kick bad-guy butt, but he's no match for… diaper-rash butt! Arnold Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop started this version in 1990, and soon many other tough-guy actors had to have their own. Chuck Norris served as inspiration to a 98-pound teen weakling in Sidekicks (1992). Vin Deisel was a Navy SEAL undercover as a nanny— or "manny"— in The Pacifier (2005). Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson played a football player who found out he was a father in The Game Plan (2007). And Jackie Chan was The Spy Next Door (2010).

Sylvester Stallone went the drama route with this pattern in Over the Top (1987) in which he plays a truck driver who earns his kid's respect in an arm-wrestling tournament. (Yes, this was a real movie.) And Bruce Willis protects a young autistic savant who cracked a government code in Mercury Rising (1998). I admit I did not have the patience to sift through all the plots of the Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, so my apologies if I missed their contributions to this subgenre.

Anyway, none of these dads are any good until they apply what they know— management or military skills— to the squishy world of child-raising.

As in Kindergarten Cop, Jack Black takes over a classroom he is not prepared for. But he gives the kids a lesson in rock'n'roll-ology, with minors in "it's OK to be different" and "stand up for what you believe in." Not a bad movie overall, somewhat a sequel to Black's High Fidelity role.

Another musical star, Ice Cube, is the "dad" in Are We There Yet? As in Paper Moon and Carpool, the basic idea is just to get the kids from here to there; a swinging bachelor tries to impress the woman he's interested in by driving them across the country. The kids do extremely dangerous and violent things to try to get rid of him, all because they don't want him ending up with her.

And in Father's Day (1997), we get two-for-one; either button-down Billy Crystal or rambunctious Robin Williams could be the father of a runaway kid, and they have to team up to find him and bring him home.

Then there is the idea of a con man being forced to take care of a girl… who turns out to be really good at manipulating adults herself! The first one was the 1973 Paper Moon, with Ryan O'Neal and his real-life daughter, Tatum. Set in the 1930s, this black-and-white caper is about a grifter who takes on a job of delivering an orphaned girl to her grandparents. He finds that she has an aptitude for cons, though, and takes her on as a sidekick and protégé.  It was sorta-remade as Curley Sue, a 1991 comedy in which Jim Belushi plays a homeless man who runs cons with a girl he takes under his wing. Then in 1994, came Leon: The Professional, a thriller about a hitman who takes a pre-teen girl under his wing (weapon?).

Interestingly, the goofballs and con men are naturals at the whole fathering thing, much better than either businessmen or bruisers, because they are more flexible. They are willing to try something that might work, instead of what should. They respond to reality, and react better to unintended results.

Men sometimes adopt teens not to perpetrate crimes, but to solve them. The Medieval mystery The Name of the Rose (1986) has action star Sean Connery as a wise monk teaching his teenage acolyte how to use logic and science to stop a murder spree. And then there is Batman, who takes a young Robin under his crime-stopping wing in their classic storyline.

Incidentally, I could find just one movie in which a woman is unprepared for child-rearing, only to have an infant thrust upon her: Baby Boom. And what does Diane Keaton do in the movie? Why, she's a businessperson! Evidently, office coffeemakers mix a little testosterone into every cup. This film came out in 1987, the same year as 3 Men and a Baby.

So here's my pitch: A female action star— say, Gina Carano of Haywire— plays a superspy… who suddenly has to take care of a baby! It's probably the one permutation that hasn't been done yet.

And it would give us dads a break from all these gee-golly diapers! As Keanu Reeves says in the original Parenthood movie: "… you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car— Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any [expletive] be a father."

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