How To Be A Good Parent


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          AT LEAST TWO things haunt us boomer parents: the fear that our past errors might compromise our present; and the urge to be the most protective parents in history. In life and in films, these haunts are often expressed quite bluntly, as in A) I was more flawed than you, therefore my recovery is more impressive; and B) to save my kids, I would kill more people than you would.

          Of course, boomers didn't invent competitive parenthood, but they've made it more blatant, and it's precisely this drive that Ron Howard has been following in many of his movies. Parenthood was full of earnest but troubled role models, and even Apollo 13 managed to shame its boomer viewers by noting that one of its childhood heroes was probably a better dad than theirs. Now, with Ransom, Howard offers a full-fledged example of a parent who--despite material success--has blown it in the past, and now risks blowing it even worse. Outlandish as its premise may be, Ransom is definitely attuned with the zeitgeist.

          Mel Gibson (a real life father of several, another Olympic-caliber dad) plays Tom Mullen, a Ted Turner-style CEO who rocketed to the top by starting an airline based mainly on his Vietnam combat flight chutzpah and an uncompromising managerial style. He's on the cover of many magazines and he has a penthouse overlooking Central Park. But one day he lets his attention wander, and soon his son Shawn (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick) is gone and in the clutches of some vindictive kidnappers. Tom's challenge is not just to get his son back, but to do it within the confines of his own flawed personality: combative, and more than a little short-sighted.

          It's a telling development when Mullen asks his primary FBI contact (Delroy Lindo) why the kidnappers have asked for only $2 million when they know he could pay far more. This thought, once expressed, seems half egotism and half management-strategy bluff. (It also conveniently excuses the mainstream audience from being as rich as either Gibson or his character--a favorite "management strategy" of Hollywood films.) But the entrepreneur's veneer can't stay smooth for long, because--out of guil --first Mullen volunteers to deliver the payoff money himself, and then the payoff goes awry. He's stuck with a no-guidelines situation now, and others hold the high card.

          Ransom turns out to be a test of wills between Mullen and Jimmy (Gary Sinise), the head kidnapper. Having read about his questionable business activities, Jimmy's intent on making Mullen squirm: "You're a guy who pays," he snarls, "You're a lyin'-ass yellow dog." The script gives Jimmy a subtext of wanting to indoctrinate his wealthy, insulated opponent into the scummy stuff that happens in the real world, and Sinise is at least up to the task of expressing this. Much like John Malkovich did in In the Line of Fire, he invests hatred with motivation, however perverse it may be.

          The story goes beyond the obvious when Mullen changes the terms of the conflict, calling Jimmy's bluff by offering a reward instead of the ransom. But oddly enough, the movie seems more interested in Jimmy's side than Mullen's. Jimmy's motley crew includes his woman, Maris (Lily Taylor, once again perfectly possessed), as well as two mismatched brothers and an alcoholic electronics expert. The situation is ugly and these people are pure evil, but there's more complex, dramatic tension in their world than at the Mullen home. There, wife Kate (Rene Russo) alternately supports and contradicts Tom, and a clutch of generic FBI experts hangs around answering the kidnappers' calls.

          Several plot twists follow, but as they say, what does it avail a man to gain a fortune and lose his soul? Apparently less than you'd think. Although Mullen is still just a dad who wants his kid, the movie has set him up as someone whose negotiation style is constantly under pressure, being tested. There's a strong hint that his comeuppance, whether Shawn remains alive or not, will involve questioning his soul. But without giving much away, mostly we see Mel Gibson whimper, and then demonstrate once again that he's a man of action more than of thought. It's a blunt, simple kiss-off to what had been a provocative situation--and ultimately suggests that Ron Howard's idea of parenthood needs to grow up.

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