The acrid tang of National Lampoon's Class Reunion didn't hang over John Hughes's career for very long: barely more than a year after that film's miserable clonk at the box office, the writer already had seen three more of his scripts turned hit the big screen to significantly better results: two of them ended up among the biggest hits of 1983 (a faraway time when breaking past $50 million made a film a blockbuster).

The first of these was Mr. Mom, a chummy, sitcom-esque film that is barely but mostly fondly remembered three decades on, and significant primarily for solidifying Michael Keaton's status as a Comic Actor To Watch after 1982's Night Watch put him on the map. The script finds Hughes coming no closer to what would become his signature style, and in fact it can be argued that Class Reunion, with its vague approximation of the social order of high school, is more of a "John Hughes film" than is Mr. Mom, a bright social realist comedy that calls attention to the soul-destroying brutality of a difficult economy just long enough to laugh it all away; but at least, unlike Class Reunion, Hughes's second film is tolerable and even pleasant, two qualities that made enough of a splash with audiences that the writer was able to continue on writing, even with a little bit of cachet now.

In Mr. Mom, Keaton plays Jack Butler, a Detroit-based automobile engineer enjoying the cozy life of a suburbanite with three kids when he is abruptly downsized along with all of his team by his smarmy Jinx Latham (Jeffrey Tambor, so calling him "smarmy" is redundant). Shocked into looking for a job, Jack can't find anything in the recession-battered economy of 1982, but it turns out that his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr) can - in fact, she waltzes right into a high-level advertising job with an ease that the average long-term unemployed person in a weak economy might view with some slack-jawed disbelief; but then, most unemployed people in the Real World aren't being assisted by narrative contrivance. Long story short, Caroline ends up with a swell high-paying job and Jack ends up with nothing, and the most sensible thing is undoubtedly for him to stay at home with the kids. Like a mom, but he's a dad! Like, like, a mister mom!

There is something about the movie's basic conceit - that a man taking care of the house and the children that live in it is so shockingly against the laws of God, man, and nature that it's worthy of comment, and also that he would be hilariously bad at it* - that's a bit icky-making. One would have thought that in a scant 28 years (less than the life of this reviewer, which is probably why it seems like a short time) we haven't come all that far in terms of gender awareness, but I can't imagine a movie this fixated on the grotesqueries that happen when gender roles go wrong could possibly exist today, at least not without causing a great deal of comment. It is quite clear from the movie that Jack isn't just out-of-practice at being a homemaker, he's ontologically incapable of performing such complex tasks as vacuuming the floor or preventing a toddler from eating a can of chili. In the meanwhile, Caroline's instinctive understanding of everything means she impresses everybody and becomes the best damn first-time ad executive you could imagine, causing her boss Ron Richardson (Martin Mull) to fall in love with her. Because he can't help it, you see. Oh, and I forgot to mention that in Jack's time hanging out with the girls, he attracts the attention of Caroline's divorced friend Joan (Ann Jillian), and the movie says without being obliged to say it out loud that even though it would be a lapse on Jack's part to cheat (which he doesn't), it would still kind of be Caroline's fault for having the temerity to go on business trips. Right guys? Of course your wife can't leave for even two nights without you being wracked with the desire to fuck the first available woman with naughtiness on her mind. 's biology.

I do not wish to put the sins of the world onto Mr. Mom's shoulders. The basic nugget of "wife can do everything, feckless husband is lucky not to set the children on fire the first day he's alone with them" is a hoary old staple of every sitcom made through the 1990s. And the double-barreled sexism of the plot, being that men are infants, but women really had ought not to be out of the home (at least the ending, which puts a relieved stop to the farce by getting everybody mostly back on traditional grounds, isn't quite as reductive in the execution as the rest of the film) is hardly any less common. It's just that it all appears so quaint now that it's hard to think about anything else.

But quaint or not, it's just a routine comic plot whipped up into an amenable time-waster by Hughes and director Stan Dragoti with maximum efficiency and little imagination; the characterisations are a bit stronger than they need to be to fulfill the bare-bones function of the form, which has a bit to do with Hughes and a lot to do with Keaton, whose all-encompassing geniality was his greatest asset in the days before he met Tim Burton and decided to push himself as an actor into some twisted places. Garr isn't there for much besides playing the Teri Garr character, though that's all the script requires; Jillian's take on a middle-age suburban vamp is probably the film's strongest secret weapon, though she doesn't get all that much screentime.

In the main, though, this is all very familiar and inoffensive and only slightly better than usual, which is undoubtedly why it was a hit (Of course, here in the 21st Century, being better than usual is itself not a requirement for box-office glory. Also, Mr. Mom would probably still have come up to about the same total of $61 million, and would have been nowhere near the Top 10 of the year. I do miss the days when low-key films for adults were big business, even when they weren't particularly creative, important, or memorable. Only two movies broke $100 million at the US box office in 1983, you know: Return of the Jedi and Terms of Endearment - oh, what a different time). Despite all my complaining, it's actually pretty inoffensive: just one of those movies that is lightly amusing and then forgotten. Fortunately for the writer and this retrospective, he was about to make a proper reputation for himself with one of the most beloved comedies of the 1980s.