Mr. Mom

Mr. Mom. Sherwood Productions 1983.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve never seen much evidence that this movie is much more than, “Haha, a man has to take care of his children while his wife goes to work! How upside-down is this world?” I can hold out hope for some mention of how the expectation that men will always be away from the family at work leads to men who were never taught how to maintain a household, but it seems unlikely.

It’ll probably be funny, but just, maybe not the kind of funny that’s aged well.

After watching the movie:

Jack Butler loses his job as an engineer when the automotive factory has massive layoffs. His wife Caroline manages to get a job in advertising before he can find new work, leaving Jack to take care of the kids and run the household. While Jack faces a steep learning curve in how to run the household, Caroline immediately proves to be a breath of fresh air in an advertising firm that’s been in marketing so long they’ve lost touch with the everyday consumer, and soon gets given charge of a major account that won’t trust anyone but her. As Jack struggles and Caroline flourishes, they’re both beset by advances from homewreckers in the new worlds they find themselves in. Joan, a divorcee in the neighborhood, stalks Jack, and Caroline’s boss Ron makes designs upon seducing Caroline. However, the stresses of their new responsibilities might be enough to undo their marriage on their own.

I’ve seen a lot of marketing for this movie, and it always seems to characterize it as a farce of “the dad tries to be a mom and everything he touches is a disaster!” but in fact, Jack is portrayed as not incapable, merely unfamiliar. He learns, he handles the situation, and after a turning point he throws himself into being the best housespouse he can be. The biggest disaster sequence isn’t so much from Jack’s failings in domesticity, but just a day where events conspire so that nothing goes right. Even more things than usual are happening at once, and Jack can only fix one thing at a time.

I got an inkling that Ron had hired Caroline for his own personal reasons before we even met him, when Caroline is told sternly by a secretary that everyone at the firm calls him “Mr. Richardson”, but he told Caroline to call him “Ron” at lunch the day before. I was concerned about the tone of that, but it’s not handled as institutional sexism being the way of the world, just an entitled boss with an interest in one particular subordinate that he doesn’t see as any ethical misstep. Ron also always gets to win at the company’s annual field day competition. He’s just a spoiled rich guy who’s always gotten his way and might not even understand why.

I think I’d heard before that this was a John Hughes story, so I should’ve expected that it would have more of a human element than most stories it might be stacked up next to, but the reputation of the movie outweighed Hughes’s reputation. Also there’s that creepy subplot in Sixteen Candles that reads much differently now than it was ever intended to, so his work isn’t immune to change of culture. In fact, this movie is about a man learning firsthand how much work it is to be the stay at home parent and learning a new respect for his wife’s achievements, but also learning how to get it done just about as well, self-taught, on the job. There’s work to be done and after some missteps, Jack steps up and gets it done. Jack can be the butt of the joke while still being respected by the narrative.

I regret having put this one off for so long. Usually my disappointment with how a movie was sold to me comes from wanting the movie the trailers were hyping more than the movie I got, but this is a much more solid and understanding story than it gets pitched as even today. It’s still pretty 80s in its trappings and conventions, but it’s also a story that wouldn’t have to change in any real substantial way if it was told today.

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