How Movies Don't "Work"

Today the new movie Daddy Day Care opens. In this lame Eddie Murphy flick, an ambitious corporate Dad who loses his job starts a daycare center with another dad to pay the mortgage. Hilarity ensues when they must change diapers and discipline kids. Teehee. Like most products of Hollywood, whose members are almost uniformly liberal thinkers, the premise of Daddy Day Care is extraordinarily conventional, even fundamentalist. Moms belong at home dealing with kids, and any toppling of this natural order is incongruous and therefore comical. Itís the same gag that almost animated the lifeless Mr. Mom, the 1983 Michael Keaton film.

I gripe because so many Hollywood movies are so thick-headed about work. At this moment a new movie is being filmed of the marvelous book, Cheaper By the Dozen. This film stars Steve Martin and is set to open this December. While this book already spawned a wonderful 1950 movie, not to mention the a sequel based on the next book, Belles on Their Toes, thereís a good reason the current production should be stopped in its tracks. Apparently the new version is changing the occupation of central character Frank Gilbreth from an efficiency expert to a football coach. Now thatís just wrong. Thatís like setting Apollo 13 on a bus. It would be like taking Roxanne, one of my favorite Steve Martin films, and giving the male lead a cute little nose.

See, Cheaper by the Dozen is more than a great book or movie. Itís also the best text Iíve read on the delicate balance between work and family. The real-life Frank Gilbreth ranks with Frederick Taylor as a pioneer in time and motion study who helped companies realize radical productivity gains in the workplace. Today his work, as cited on this great website, continues to influence managers and consultants. But the great conceit of the book is stated in the opening pages, by the author, Gilbreth Jr. "Dad always practiced what he preached, and it was just about impossible to tell where his scientific management company ended and his family life began." The book is a delightful and charming exposition of how this conflict plays out between work and his family of twelve children--not to mention a wife who played equal partner. It shows how Gilbreth meant to humanize the efficiency process; and how he comically discovers the limits of time-and-motion efforts on family life.

Okay, I realize that weíre talking about Hollywood movies here, a world in which hookers look like Julia Roberts and in which, when they wash off the grime and shave their beard, homeless bums clean up as Nick Nolte. But every now and then an intelligent film (Tootsie for one) comes along to challenge conventional thinking about gender roles. And every now and then lovely movies like Big Night or My Beautiful Launderette or The Van tell a moving story that captures the real relationship between our work and our lives.

Posted by tom at May 9, 2003 03:58 PM

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