A sob for the obvious

Staff WriterJuly 11, 2008 

  • HH

    Cast: Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent.

    Director: Anand Tucker.

    Length: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

    Web site: www.whendidyoulastseeyourfathermovie.com.

    Theaters: Cary: Galaxy. Chapel Hill: Varsity. Durham: Carolina. Raleigh: Rialto.

    Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, thematic material and brief strong language).

'When Did You Last See Your Father?" is a foreign film for Mitch Albom fans.

Just like the shamelessly sentimental books the Detroit Free Press columnist churns out, this flick from the British Isles wants to get the sniffles out of you by any means necessary.

"Father" has Colin Firth as Blake Morrison, the writer whose 1993 memoir the movie is based on. He's an award-winning author whose old man (Jim Broadbent) won't give him any respect, even from his deathbed.

His father, who spent years calling him "Fathead" and couldn't stop embarrassing and undermining him in public, is now about to leave this mortal coil courtesy of terminal cancer. Now his son returns home to be there for him. While he's there, he replays old memories -- some good, plenty bad -- and asks that immortal question: Did my father ever love me, and did I ever love him?

Yeah, it's a tear-jerker. But since it's a British tear-jerker, expect emotion to be dished out in a calm and composed manner. There won't be any dramatic bursts of long-simmering anger and tension in this film, even when the story (stiffly scripted by novelist/Brit TV writer David Nicholls) brings up the possibility that Pops was creeping on the side, even bringing an illegitimate kid in this world. It's a movie too proper and respectful to bring the pain.

The filmmakers certainly found the right actor to play the long-suffering son. Nobody plays rigid repression as sophisticatedly as Firth, who's practically made himself a marquee name because of it. But this movie has him too balled up and resigned. He spends most of the movie moping around, getting snitty with his wife (Gina McKee) whenever she asks what's wrong and pleasuring himself to flashbacks of his first love -- the family's Scottish au pair -- when he isn't stalking her outside her place. He's almost a bigger tool than his old man; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

You may find yourself wondering what this guy is so angry about in the first place. His dad wasn't a violent, psychologically scarring, deadbeat dad. He was an everydad, obnoxiously loud yet loyal and dependable -- and sometimes a run-of-the-mill jerk. (Since the dad is played by Broadbent, an actor who can't stop being jolly even when he supposed to be gasping his last breath, he's a jerk you can't help but find amusing.)

Director Anand Tucker ("Hilary & Jackie," "Shopgirl") certainly takes every chance he gets to lens all the scenes with lyrical, sweeping empathy. This movie will probably make people who have lost loved ones wish their last moments with them were this visually crystalline.

But no matter how moving and emotional the parties involved try to make it, this is still another I-hate-my-daddy-no-I-love-my-daddy deathbed movie. The kind of movie ABC still makes for TV. The kind of movie that plays all its cliches (and its audience) like notes on a well-tuned Stratocaster. The kind of movie readers will probably vilify me for not being all choked-up over.

Hey, I'm sorry. But if I want to have a good, honest cry during a movie, I'll go see "WALL*E" again.

craig.lindsey@newsobserver.com, (919) 829-4760 or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle/home

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