If Howard’s career up until this point had largely been defined by juvenile situation comedies (“Gung-Ho” being one of our favorites, no matter how politically incorrect it is; it’s funny as shit, again with many thanks to Michael Keaton during his ‘80s comedy heyday), “Parenthood” was one of his early attempts at making something more mature and adult, with mixed, but somewhat admirable results. A family ensemble film, written again by Ganz and Mandell, the same kind of warm-hearted, sentimental and uplifting notes that made “Cocoon” such a divisive piece of work (reviled by some, it was still a big box office hit) are present here as well, but a few hard luck moments and some less saccharine performances make “Parenthood” not quite so safe-as-milk. Featuring varied subplots that revolve around the extended Buckman family, Steve Martin leads the charge as Gil, a neurotic salesman whose central worry is the universal concern of all parents wound up too tight: will my children grow up and inherit the flaws passed down to me from my parents? But Gil is overcompensating because of the strained relationship with his Dad (an excellent Jason Robards). Other members of the Buckman family include Gil’s divorced sister Helen (a great Dianne Wiest who scored a Supporting Oscar nomination for her turn), who is having trouble raising her moody, troubled son (a young Joaquin Phoenix) on her own, another sister Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), who’s having the joy squeezed out of her and her daughter’s life by her anally-retentive husband (Rick Moranis) and the black sheep Larry (Tom Hulce), who is in some serious financial troubles leaving his son in jeopardy. Feel-good and sweet, as you’d probably expect, it all wraps up too nicely in a bow (following the central criticism of Howard’s films is that the writing frequently veers into the banal and conventional). So yes, parenting is difficult and the characters all learn not to tug so hard and let their collective children fail, but along the way there are some well-observed, graceful, human notes. The likable Steve Martin never falters, a brooding Joaquin Phoenix is a terrifically believable angsty adolescent and every scene involving Hulce, Robards and Martin is genuinely painful stuff. Hardly perfect, conversely it’s too easy to just discard “Parenthood” as another homogenous Ron Howard movie if only because it features such strong performances and possesses genuinely likable, and occasionally insightful, heart.
“In order to kill a fire, you have to love it a little”—if we ever write a book of patently false movie wisdom, that Robert De Niro line from “Backdraft” may well be the first entry. But truthfulness doesn’t seem to have been something Howard was going for with his 1991 firefighter film, featuring some of the most dramatic, pretty, and totally smokeless fire effects (courtesy of ILM) that had even been done to that point. In fact, as much as we’ve banged on about Howard’s restraint (to the point of anonymity) behind the camera, “Backdraft” may be the closest he's come, as an established director, to all-out schlock. But perhaps he can be excused a little excess; having confirmed his good eye for the fantastical (given fullest expression in the decent “Willow,” but also running through “Cocoon,” and “Splash”) and a light touch with comedy, Howard, coming off a huge, twice-TV-show-spawning hit with “Parenthood” seems to have wanted to establish some darker dramatic credentials too. So he may have overshot slightly with this potboiler melodrama featuring an ensemble cast of thesps, and Billy Baldwin and Kurt Russell, as a firefighting team on the trail of a serial arsonist. The funny thing is, though, that though everyone hams it up crazily (Donald Sutherland probably gets the ribbon in this regard) and Baldwin has sex with Jennifer Jason Leigh atop a fire engine, and lots of fraternal friction occurs between Baldwin and Russell’s characters, the film is still a well-made piece of pure popcorn escapism—by no means anyone’s finest hour, but a compelling guilty pleasure nonetheless. More definitively, it ushered in the middle period of Howard’s directorial career, as he spent the '90s gradually sloughing off the more heavily comedy-based early part of his development and testing the waters of other genres. Of those, historical romance, thriller and kids’ movies may not have all yielded great results (with the awful Tom Cruise Oirish vehicle “Far and Away,” the so-so Mel Gibson film “Ransom” and the horrible Jim Carrey version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” respectively), but elsewhere he further honed his skills in the arena of measured human drama, which is probably what we most associate him with now, and which, in “Apollo 13” would soon spawn the best, and most exemplary, film of his career to that date.
“Apollo 13” (1995)
Coming off now relatively forgotten Michael Keaton-headed ensemble film “The Paper,” which had been a moderate hit mainly because it was a pretty low-budget outing in the first place, Howard went into space for his best film yet, and perhaps his best film, period, with the true-life story of the aborted Apollo 13 mission to the moon. It is of course also a testament to the script, by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinart, based off the book by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger that the story is a gripping as it is, but while the actors (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris) all got their due, and the excellent editing and sound design both won Oscars (the James Horner score was nominated too), Howard, to our mind, was rather overlooked when the laurels were being handed out for this one. In fact, it’s an incredibly difficult story to put together coherently and compellingly, quite aside from the technical challenges of period detailing and shooting in zero gravity. It’s largely three guys in a tin can who, get this, fail to land on the moon, and whose biggest achievement is coming home, aided by a bunch of NASA boffins armed with little more than thick spectacles and slide rules. It hardly sounds cinematic. Add to that the difficulty of getting across a basic understanding of the physics that underlies the challenges the mission faces, and surely “Apollo 13” ought to be a terribly dull, talky history lesson. Instead, never has Howard’s talent for getting out of the way of a great story been better employed, here he creates gripping drama and a real sense of peril and struggle, both on the ground and 200,000 miles up. Often we’re guilty of seeing the lack of overt authorial identity in Howard’s work as a deficiency, and in all fairness sometimes it can seem anodyne, but “Apollo 13” makes a persuasive case that it might on occasion be his best asset—as much skill and craftsmanship as it might take to tell the story of a series of math problems in such compulsive, thrilling fashion, there’s an immediacy to “Apollo 13” that totally belies its artistry. It’s Howard at his most technically proficient, and also his most humble, and seriously, we could watch this film again, like right now.
“A Beautiful Mind”
After the unadulterated critical and commercial success of “Apollo 13,” and a big hit in the shape of dour but well-made kidnap thriller “Ransom,” Howard stumbled over the next couple of films. To be fair, “Ed TV” is not bad, but was victim of unfortunate timing coming out the year after the similarly themed “The Truman Show” and feeling like an also-ran as a result. But he really fell flat on his face with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the relentlessly lurid, grating and entirely uncharming Dr Seuss adaptation in 2000. But as he would do again, he came back from the worst critical drubbing of his career with one of his best-received films, the real-life drama “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe as troubled mathematician John Nash. The film itself is not at all our bag, let’s be honest, with its mawkish sentimentalization of mental illness and reductive, almost romantic portrayal of madness as the price of genius, but while its sober self-importance (not a trait that any of Howard’s films had really displayed till now) is our kryptonite, the Academy and audiences the world over, loved it, and the film won Howard his Best Director Oscar (as well as that year’s Best Picture, and Best Supporting actress for Jennifer Connolly). Leaving aside our issues, it’s undeniably a well-made film, handsomely mounted, lush in period detail and strong performances from all the cast. It also shows Howard stepping into the light a little more than he had done to date: where his style had been usually straightforward, almost prosaic, here in the madness and paranoia sections especially, there’s a more impressionistic and evocative tone than we’d seen from him before. It was certainly the most self-consciously “directorial” if that makes sense, that he’d ever been, and he was duly rewarded. It was a mode he’d stay in for while—the underrated Western “The Missing” and the solid if hardly groundbreaking boxing pic “Cinderella Man,” his second pairing with Crowe, also fit the mold of the sincere, handsomely mounted, well-acted prestige pic. To an extent these three films could support this newfound sense of self-importance. But then a certain globally bestselling book came his way.