As the opening seconds of the trailer makes clear, Trainwreck [review here] posits the root cause of protagonist Amy’s inability to sustain a romantic relationship as her father’s own dysfunction in this regard. He begins by telling his daughters the usual line, “Girls, your mother and I are getting divorced,” but goes on to make his daughters repeat “Monogamy isn’t realistic” several times. In celebration of the questionable judgment of just such men who’ve procreated and kinda blown it, here’s my list of The Top 5 Dysfunctional Dads in movies.
5. NATURAL BORN KILLERS
Dir. Oliver Stone, 1995
Natural Born Killers is a little romantic comedy about a couple really finding themselves out on the roads of America who make it big along the way. Also they are serial killers and by “make it big” I mean the media glamorizes their horrific deeds, profiting from the deaths of innocent bystanders and the undying love shared by Mickey and Mallory Knox. Despite what the title suggests – and this is just one instance of the film’s critique of the tabloid media’s romanticization of murderers – Mallory wasn’t necessarily “born bad”; in one of the more experimental sequences early in the film, we see the “meet cute” between our lovebirds. Filmed in the style of a 1950s sitcom called “I Love Mallory” with a boisterous and darkly-timed laugh-track, we are introduced to dinner time with her family: a meek and big-haired mother, an obnoxious twerp of a little brother wearing corpse paint, and the real winner in this domestic dream, dad, played by none other than Rodney Dangerfield. And though the soundtrack keeps on laughing, he’s definitely not playing for it: he leans in far too close and sneers at his daughter that if she talks back, he’ll beat her, like he does her mother; then he tells her to go upstairs and take a “good bath,” and he’ll check on how she did afterward. When mother twitters that he may have been too hard on Mallory, he responds, bug-eyed and wet-lipped, “I’ll show her a little tenderness.” No wonder Mallory ends up running off with the meat delivery guy.
Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996
The protagonist of Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard, is so bad at being a father that you probably didn’t even remember that he has a kid in this movie. And we have to question the wisdom of any man who believes he can best support his family by hiring a couple of turtle-necked hitmen to kidnap his wife, the mother of his child, in an incredibly foolish money-making scheme intended to fund a just-as-unlikely business venture. Fargo begins as a dark comedy of errors that manages to increase in grim levity in the face of further violence, devastating setbacks, and Lundegaard’s complete inability to succeed on any front. His would have been a powerful lesson for the likes of wannabe father and similarly-failed land-developer Frank Semyon on True Detective, though that show is definitely not interested in finding the pitch black humor in terrible fatherhood. It shouldn’t go unremarked that in the midst of his monumental bumbling, Lundegaard’s father-in-law’s accountant – of all people – reminds him to tell his son what’s happened; when he does so, he remains awkwardly perched in the doorway to his son’s dimly-lit bedroom, where even the little rascal suggests that they should call the damn police. If your kid is better-equipped to handle a situation on the kidnapping-murder-car-thievery scale, face it, you suck at being a dad. On top of everything else, Jerry.
Dir. David Lynch, 1996
Fatherhood inspires any number of anxieties, and who better to capture the dark nightmares and morbid fantasies of the first-time dad than the king of family entertainment himself, David Lynch? Eraserhead is the story of Henry, the prototypical dysfunctional father: shocked by the news of the pregnancy, can’t get along with the in-laws, definitely infatuated with the neighbor, dreaming of sperm-squashing women with chipmunk cheeks, the whole package. One might want to label their potato-headed, squeaking nightmare creature of a baby “dysfunctional,” but I think it’s safe to say that he is the product of, at the very least, the imagination of his odd, odd progenitors. So Henry was trying, sure, but doesn’t every father know not to cut open the swaddling of their gross infant?
2. OVER THE TOP
Dir. Menahem Golan, 1987
You guys, Over the Top is seriously the best truck driver-arm wrestling, father-son reconciliation movie of the 1980s. Sylvester Stallone (as Lincoln Hawk) is in peak cocaine-and-steroid-fueled stuffed-sausage status, and shows it off in a stunning array of henleys and belly tees – a look clearly intended to woo his young, estranged son away from military school and his greedy maternal grandfather, played by the one and only Robert Loggia. And by “woo” I definitely mean seduce, because there is a bizarre sexual thing happening throughout this movie, from Lincoln and his son Michael working out together bathed in the rays of a desert sunset, to father forcing son to arm-wrestle the local delinquents in the video-arcade-room of a truck stop (all the while suggestively yelling “Pump it! Pump it!”), to Michael’s dramatic nick-of-time sprint through the airport to make it to his father’s big match-up at the national arm wrestling competition. Hawk also allows his son to drive his big-rig pick-up truck, apparently to “teach him a lesson” or build some kind of connection, with nary a worry for the innocent civilians sharing the road. Or what about the time when he leaves his son seated at a now-empty bar, while all the occupants follow Lincoln into the other room to watch him arm wrestle? In case you weren’t sure whether this was a bad idea, a huge, sweating man wearing sunglasses approaches Michael, who is waiting, alone, and lays his hand on top of the boy’s, and threateningly asks what he’s “doing with that guy.” For real, though, what IS he doing with Lincoln Hawk, who is objectively a terrible father? You need to get out of there, kid!
1. MOSQUITO COAST
Dir. Peter Weir, 1986
Mosquito Coast is criminally under-watched and perhaps one of the more effective portrayals of terrible fatherly dysfunction. Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, who is legitimately in the midst of the ultimate midlife crisis: not only does it consume and destroy his own and his family’s lives, it infects and destroys those of a jungle and its inhabitants. Having failed to sell any of his inventions to the local farmers, Fox, a disappointed genius of sorts, moves his wife and four children to the jungles of South America to build a new life and a new society, using only their own ingenuity, the willingness and hard work of the locals, and Fox’s monumental ego. Having created a Swiss-family-Robinson-worthy village of huts, Fox wrangles his family and the community into building a giant ice-maker intended to improve the lives of everyone living in the jungle, a monstrosity for the success of which Fox is eager to risk the lives of all those he loves. As disaster-upon-disaster visits the beleaguered family, the film captures the desperate devotion of Allie’s children, who are unable to cope with their father’s disintegration and awed by the depth of his terror, disappointment, and anger (with himself, his life, death). “Mother,” as she is called by both her children and Allie, must similarly cling to the sinking bulwark of her husband and it’s truly devastating to see the degradation Allie’s family must experience in the face of his personal crisis, exemplified in River Phoenix’s starved, devastated appearance as he attempts to supplant his father and rescue their sinking ship of an existence. It’s an incredibly moving portrayal of the extent of the destruction of which the unchecked ego-in-crisis is capable, and the dangers posed by a father out of control.