July 22, 1983
MR. MOM is a domestic comedy with a likable performance by Michael Keaton and a dated premise. The screenplay is credited to John Hughes, the National Lampoon magazine humorist who had started a career in movies by writing NATIONAL LAMPOON’S JAWS 3: PEOPLE 0, to be directed by Joe Dante. Steven Spielberg threatened to never work with Universal again if they really went through with that shit, and they ditched the project, making way for the hated but not parodic JAWS 3-D. So instead Hughes’ first screenplay credit ended up being NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CLASS REUNION, and this was his second (beating NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION by a week). It was directed by Stan Dragoti (LOVE AT FIRST BITE).
Keaton (in his fourth movie, between NIGHT SHIFT and JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY) plays Jack Butler, an engineer at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. But the economy isn’t good, cars aren’t selling so well, so one day after commuting to work with his friends “Jinx” Latham (Jeffrey Tambor, SATURDAY THE 14TH), Larry (Christopher Lloyd, SCHIZOID) and Humphries (Graham Jarvis, THE HOT ROCK), Jinx calls the other three in to his office to tell them they’ve been laid off.
Jack tries to stay positive about finding a new job, but the situation also ignites a spark in his wife Caroline (Terri Garr, THE CONVERSATION), who left a career in advertising when they started having kids. When she suggests that maybe she could be the breadwinner he thinks that’s ridiculous and makes a bet that he can get a job first. Guess who wins?
Jack brushes off his wife’s advice about how to handle things, swears he has it under control, then of course finds that it’s much harder than he expects to take care of his sons Alex (first timer Frederick Koehler) and Kenny (Taliesin Jaffe, later in EXPLORERS) and their baby sister Megan (Courtney & Brittany White). They run around and make a mess and what not. Most of the laffs and wackiness are of a tradition that now primarily exists in advertising, the ol’ “can you believe how in over their heads these husbands are when they try to do stuff their wives do all the time? I mean can you believe it, it’s so funny when this happens!
Of course, it’s not entirely false – someone who lives their life in a certain role and then switches to a different one they’re not experienced in will generally have to have a learning period – but the part that seemed pretty outrageous to me was that this man has a hard time shopping for groceries. I’m not denying it, but I guess I just don’t remember a time when that was considered a gendered activity, or when a guy like Jack could live his life not having practice in such a basic, everyday task.
Also, I have trouble believing that Jack would be so mortified to be purchasing tampons. Very slightly uncomfortable? Sure, I guess. At most. And then he would move on. It’s hard to swallow. To be fair, the filmmakers aren’t trying to make a docudrama – there is definitely exaggeration meant for comic or impressionistic effect. For example, the difficulty of maintaining a household is portrayed by multiple, overlapping appointments with repairmen and exterminators and stuff, seemingly every day.
During his first time at the grocery store Jack runs into Caroline’s friend Joan (Ann Jillian, BABES IN TOYLAND), who jumps at the chance to help him out and create a support group of neighborhood housewives. She’s trying to make a move on him, but also as he gets used to his role he needs people to talk to about coupons and soap operas. It’s ancient, cornball shit, but sometimes Keaton can make it funny.
We also see some of Caroline’s time working at an ad agency, where she struggles to fit in with a bunch of dudes and a few women who have never been housewives, but finds that her experience gives her unique insights into how to advertise some of their products. Her boss Ron Richardson (Martin Mull, MY BODYGUARD) gives her opportunities, but only because he wants favors from her, and there’s a part where they travel to shoot a commercial and he sexually harasses her in a hotel room, similar to what happened to Lonnie Anderson in STROKER ACE. Except Caroline doesn’t kick her boss in the dick.
Jack doesn’t know about that, and instead of being proud of Caroline’s success he feels threatened and diminished by it. In true sitcom fashion he believes she’s having an affair with her boss and considers having one with Joan as payback. Dumb idea. Luckily everything is straightened out before it’s too late. Spoiler. I got some laughs from the part where Ron comes to the house and Jack tries to assert his manliness by switching into overalls and a backwards hat and pretending to be in the middle of doing something with a chainsaw. There’s a hierarchy here – both are executives, but Jack worked in a factory and had friends there, so he’s technically more salt of the earth than Ron, but neither of these guys know how to use power tools, I suspect.
There’s a funny part before Jack is laid off, where he claims to have recently gone to see ROCKY with his wife to use as an optimistic allegory for his buddies working the line who are worried about their future. Before he can get anywhere they start asking questions to figure out which ROCKY he’s talking about. “One or two or three?” “Who was he fightin?” “Hey, did he have a mohawk?” “Was his manager dead or alive?”
After Jack concludes with the moral “The point is, when you’re down, you’re not necessarily out. You know, I mean, you gotta hang tough,” and then walks away, they agree, “He didn’t see ROCKY.”
Later we see that his son has a ROCKY III poster in his room. The one that inspired John Travolta to hire Stallone to direct STAYING ALIVE. There’s also a musical allusion to JAWS in the at-the-time famous scene where a vacuum goes out of control and rolls around the house on its own. Vacuums, am I right!?
The music is by Lee Holdridge (THE BEASTMASTER) and the theme is mellow and laid back almost to the point of parody. Something that could only really exist around that time. Imagine if a modern movie used music like this:
Edie McClurg (CARRIE) shows up in one scene – Hughes would later use her in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, of course.
Lauren Shuler (not yet Donner) is the producer. She had befriended Hughes after reading an article of his she liked in National Lampoon. When Hughes told her a story about being a total bozo and having no clue how to take care of his kids when his wife was gone she agreed it was a funny idea that could be made into a movie. Hughes had a deal with Aaron Spelling, who set it up as a TV movie. Universal didn’t like Hughes working out of Chicago though, so they hired TV writers to rewrite his script, before deciding to go theatrical with it.
You’d never see this with this type of movie now, but MR. MOM had a platform release, opening on 126 screens on July 22, with no expectation to compete with JAWS 3-D’s 1,300 screens. On August 19 it expanded to 734 screens and leapt up to #3 at the box office. Because it was a success, Universal signed a three picture deal with Hughes and he made his directorial debut the following year with SIXTEEN CANDLES, starring SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE’s Molly Ringwald. (The other two movies in the deal were THE BREAKFAST CLUB and WEIRD SCIENCE.)
Director Dragoti went on to helm THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (1985), SHE’S OUT OF CONTROL (1989) and NECESSARY ROUGHNESS (1991). Keaton became Batman. Garr became Mary McGinnis, mother of Batman Beyond. Koehler became “Lists” in DEATH RACE, DEATH RACE 2, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO and DEATH RACE: BEYOND ANARCHY. Jaffe became a prolific voice actor for video games and anime. The Detroit auto industry had a resurgence. B-Rabbit won the freestyle battle. The world keeps on spinning.
As often happened in those days, and as seems natural for a movie with such sitcom humor, they tried to turn it into a TV series, but instead just released the pilot as a TV movie. It was directed by Terry Hughes (THE BUTCHER’S WIFE) and starred Barry Van Dyke (Galactica 1980) and Rebecca York (Newhart).
Also I can’t fucking believe this but in 2019 the VOD service Vudu made a sequel to the movie as their first original streaming series. Andrea Anders (Better Off Ted) played the grown up version of baby daughter Megan, whose family goes through similar wacky hijinks when she gets a dream job and her husband becomes a stay at home dad. There don’t seem to have been any grandparent cameos (or recastings) so maybe it’s not technically a legacy sequel.