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Farming jokes out of men who are so inept in their own homes they can’t make toast is nothing new and is still (unbelievably) a thing in modern advertising and even the occasional television show and movie. But back in the early 80s, it was comedy gold and so it was that Hollywood produced Mr. Mom, a box office hit that played up the tropes of a befuddled dad to epic levels and made a star out of its lead.
We meet Jack Butler (Michael Keaton), who loses his job as an engineer at a car manufacturing company, so he and his wife Caroline (Teri Garr) decide that he should stay home with their three young children and take care of the house while she takes a job in advertising and provide for the family. Having put her education and skills on hold to raise the children, she is eager to go to work but of course, hesitant to leave Jack alone in the minefield that is their home. Confident at first, Jack soon learns that he took everything Caroline had done for granted and finds himself in increasingly traumatic situations that almost make him snap, but eventually, he gets a hold of it and settles into the “housewife” role, becoming swept up in TV soap operas and gossip with the neighboring women, including one who does her fair share of flirting. Naturally, as time passes, he grows to feel threatened by Caroline’s success and trapped in the home-life he’s created.
Directed by Stan Drogati (and written by John Hughes), Mr. Mom has a funny plot and some genuine laughs, especially from the always reliable Keaton, but ultimately feels less like a solid film story and more like a television half-hour situational comedy stretched to 90 minutes. As the bumbling and hopelessly inept Jack causes more and more chaos in the home, the jokes spread thin and the makers miss the mark in creating humor from reality, instead going for absurd, with broad antics that escalate into unbelievable (almost fantastical) moments that sap the potential for something truly great. Still, the film is revered as a classic, and certainly remains a treasure of the times and showcases some great early work from Keaton and the superb Garr. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Jack has let himself go. As the weeks pass with him stuck in the house, he has sort of devolved into a cantankerous mess, wearing the same shirt, letting his beard grow out, not cleaning up the house, and putting on some extra pounds around the middle. He knows it. He accepts it. He lives with it. All the while though, he’s built a following of local housewives and mothers who come over to the house and play poker for coupons. One of them is Joan (Ann Jillian) who continually puts the moves on Jack, (though he resists). One evening, with the game in full swing, Caroline arrives home early, and seeing the women, greets them politely before heading upstairs to bed.
The women go home and Jack brings his exhausted wife some dinner (and a flower) but she snidely remarks she would have stayed downstairs with his girlfriends if she wanted to eat, which sets off Jack, realizing his wife has a few issues about his current dilapidated condition. The two bicker and he confesses his brain is turning to oatmeal before eventually grabbing a pillow and declaring he’s sleeping on the sofa as she slams the door behind him.
The moment is a highlight as it is one of only a few solid moments that feels authentic between these two people and hints at what the film might have been if it had concentrated on the characters and less on the gags, allowing the humor to grow from situations rather than framing a story around the jokes. Keaton, hinting at that famous edge he would bring to later roles, ignites the moment with some real depth, effortlessly giving the moment a genuine feel. Garr, who is a cinematic treasure, also gives the scene some weight, making the trope-ish moment that much more memorable.