The post title says it all, really. Ron Howard is an important Hollywood director, and I felt that I had to include him; but there was no reason I could come up with for any individual title in his filmography. 1989 had no other compelling contenders, plus I had never seen the director's film Parenthood from that year, which was a plus.

Forgive the ungainly backstage ruminations on how I assembled the Hollywood Century schedule, but I share it now, of all times for a reason. That reason being that Ron Howard's films, and the branch of studio filmmaking they represent, are characterised above all things by how little there is to say or think about them. They are purposefully and aggressively non-cinema: mass consumables which have already done the work of digesting themselves, so that you the viewer are able to sit comfortably and have all the hard work of watching a movie done for you. Sometimes, the individual components are all working perfectly, alone and in tandem, and you get Apollo 13. The rest of the time...

This is not to say that Parenthood is a "bad" movie. It is the kind of movie specifically designed so that it can never possibly be "bad". It is, on the contrary, entirely "proficient" in a way that is above all things safe, friendly, and appealing to a mass audience entirely by virtue of presenting it with concepts that it expects us to happily nod in agreement with - oh, that's so true. And to dress this up in a kind of deliberate un-aesthetic with everything lit to be bright and flat, framed in a combination of two-shots and close-ups that communicate only that this character is now looking in this direction. Films like this have always been a major part of the Hollywood landscape, though they are almost never remembered well in later years: films that are easy, ostensibly likable cinema, made by talented craftspeople whose job involves making movies cleanly and efficiently, with a deliberate renunciation of any creativity or challenging engagement with its own ideas that might spook the audience. It worked in this case, at least: Parenthood ended up on the list of the ten highest-grossing films of the U.S. domestic box office in 1989, a fate that could not possibly befall an adult-targeting ensemble comedy in the cinematic landscape of 25 years later.

Now, you perhaps caught that "ostensibly likable" up there, because to be honest about it, Parenthood feels to me so non-confrontational, so sand-blasted of difficulties, so goddamn square, that it's a bit dreary and upsetting to watch it. Part of that is the grim spectacle of watching talented actors that one prefers to enjoy blasting past the narrow challenges of a script that requires virtually no effort to play well. Part of it is the relentless middle-class morality: the title gives the game away, but this is a film that understands only domestic family life, and that from an emphatically white, straight, male perspective. And of course, white straight males have perspectives on things, and that is fair and appropriate. But it's not the sort of thing that's going to give you something new and unexpected to gnaw on.

Anyway, Parenthood is a sprawling cross-section of one family's life over a period of months, the Buckmans: first in line are Frank (Jason Robards) and his wife Marilyn (Eileen Ryan), whom he plainly does not regard as anything but his sidekick and accessory. This has long bothered his eldest son Gil (Steve Martin), who has striven to do everything the opposite in his own marriage to Karen (Mary Steenburgen), and to raise their children, Kevin (Jasen Fisher), Taylor (Alisan Porter), and Justin (Zachary Lavoy) in the ways least resembling how his father raised him, though he in fact has managed to endow Kevin with all his own crippling neuroses, wrecking the boy's ability to function in school and with peers. Gil's sister, and presumably the oldest of the Buckman children, is Helen (Dianne Wiest), divorced and struggling to raise her sexually active teen daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) and silent pubescent son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, in his final performance credited as "Leaf"). Their other sister, Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) is a schoolteacher married to a brilliant but inhumane neuroscientist, Nathan (Rick Moranis), who insists on raising their daughter, Patty (Ivyann Schwann) to be more literate and mathematically inclinced and intelligent than other children, at the cost of her social skills. Last is youngest brother Larry (Tom Hulce), a shiftless gambling addict and schemer who has just come back into the family's life with an unexpected son of his own, Cool (Alex Burrall), and a need for lodging that sends the family's nonagenarian grandmother (Helen Shaw) to live with Gil and Karen, while Frank and Marilyn take care of Cool and Frank over-indulges his favorite son.

That's a whole lot of people just at the level of laying out the scenario, so it's no surprise at all when Parenthood drops the ball: the subplot revolving around Susan, Nathan, and Patty is clearly the one that engages Howard and his co-writers Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel the least, and every time the focus shifts back over to them, the film almost visibly sags with boredom. Nor does it help that this is the only subplot that cares more about the Buckman spouse than the Buckman - it's clearly just something wedged in because Rick Moranis was available, and it gave Rick Moranis something active to do, even if it is not of the smallest interest to watch it in the context of the rest of the film's stories.

And for something to be disinteresting in the overall context of Parenthood is a damning insult, since the movie as a whole is pretty damn disinteresting. The situations are all so calculated in their broadness, so predictable not just in terms of the actual events that will happen but also the film's opinion on them, it's not surprising in the least that the film was adapted into a television show - not once, but twice (the former replacing Joaquin Phoenix with Leonardo DiCaprio, a crossing of future A-list Gen-X actors that is, in retrospect, the most amazing thing about the entirety of the Parenthood franchise). It's already as comforting as a sitcom in film form, it would seem a shame not to try and retrofit it for the small screen, where it's low-key story beats and generically tidy visuals already long to reside.

Nor is it simply predictable at the macro level of story and character arcs, but in the way it sells and foreshadows its gags: the scene where we meet Nathan and Susan has them talking to their offscreen daughter about her grades, in language that suggests a sullen pre-teen. But Howard and cinematographer Donald McAlpine and editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill are so conspciuously keeping Patty offscreen, calling our attention to how awkwardly inorganic the camera angles are individually and together, so that we just know that we're being set up for a comic twist, and having figured that out, it's pretty fucking easy to suppose what the twist might be. Same thing with one of the movie's signature moments, when there's a black-out that takes just long enough to resolve that it's pretty clear that something embarrassing and/or incriminating is going to be waiting for us when the lights come back (sidebar: the film's weirded-out fascination with the thought that "WHOA a middle-aged divorcee would have something like a vibrator?" is hands-down the part that pissed me off the most, though this may be as much a factor of its age as its masculine worldview).

These are not flaws. I mean, they are flaws, terrible flaws that make the film a chore to watch, but they're not mistakes. This is exactly the way Howard & Co. want Parenthood to function: it rewards us for being so smart that we can see where it's going, and then we feel better about agreeing with its observations. This is the notion, anyway; privately, there's not much I hate more than a comedy that announces its punchlines in advance, but in this I understand that I'm at odds with a huge portion of the American comedy-consuming populace.

With its humor and its conflicts so exactingly and suffocatingly plotted out, all that Parenthood has to fall back on its ensemble, with far more talented people that can possibly be boring to watch, even when they are saddled with such utterly meaningless roles as Moranis. And this is, I concede, a genuine pleasure the film offers. The only person who is consistently operating a higher level than the film requires is Wiest, which is of course no surprise. She takes plenty of easy, obvious moments and manages to do both the expected, sitcommy thing and find the character truth underneath it; the showpiece scene is certainly when she's going through a bundle of dirty photographs her daughter took, and responding to them with tearful sarcasm that burns a lot more than the big tragicomic notes of the writing demand. A career highlight? No. Worthy of the Oscar nomination she got? Not really. But it's more rewarding than it ought to be, and that counts for something.

Nobody else in the cast is pushing quite that hard, and all of them allow themselves to do the lazy thing at least once or twice, but for most of the ensemble, it's possible to pull out at least one or two scenes where they're really soaring, and it's not always in the obvious gimme scenes (every important character in the film has at least one of those). I would never, ever claim that the film is worth watching on the strength of talented people passing easy tests, but it's the thing that makes the film pleasurable on any level whatsoever while you're watching it. It's the whole competence thing again: just like watching a man with McAlpine's skills light a generic "big suburban house" set, or listening to Randy Newman's perfectly ordinary score and his bouncy light pop number "I Love to See You Smile", perhaps the exact point at which he began to sacrifice his identity as an angry quipster and social observer (it feels, in all ways, like a weaker dry run for "You've Got a Friend in Me", six years later). Parenthood is a feature-length exercise in watching people doing things that do not tax them, in the service of lessons that do not tax us. It is a profoundly, exaggeratedly relaxing film, even as it claims to be investigating the rough, befuddling issues of modern families. Reducing messy reality to the stuff of frivolous, audience-pleasing foam: this is Hollywood filmmaking, and Parenthood is an unusually pure example from the very heart of the period when it was at its most refined.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1989
-The Biggest Fucking Summer Ever features such major movies as Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
-Lightyears away from all that popcorn escapism, but sharing space in the same multiplexes, Spike Lee releases the radical exploration of American race relations, Do the Right Thing
-The Wizard makes a long-form narrative out of a video game ad

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1989
-John Woo, already a major name in Hong Kong's action industry since 1986's A Better Tomorrow, has his first critical hit in the West with The Killer
-British shit-stirrer Peter Greenaway comes as close as he ever will to popular success with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
-Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness wins the top prize at the Venice film festival, pushing Taiwanese cinema to mainstream attention