This article is adapted from a segment of Slate’s podcast The Gist. (To listen to the audio version, skip to 17:05 in the player below.)
As a serial killer, possible alien, Southern politician, and interrogation subject who turns out to be, well, I don’t want to spoil it, Kevin Spacey is one of cinema’s great shapeshifters. Given Hollywood’s discomfort with the figurative, it was therefore inevitable that he be cast as the dad in the forthcoming Nine Lives. But not just any dad. A dad who becomes a cat! But not just any dad who becomes a cat!
Actually, he becomes quite a bit like every dad who becomes a cat, or, more generally, any dad who becomes another thing—be it a cat, or a snowman, a pathological truth teller, or Santa Claus. Hollywood has a long tradition of magically transforming fathers in order to make a point about parenthood, work, and family. It is the same point, delivered in many guises, both furry and frosty. I speak of the tradition of the Magic Workaholic Dream Dad.
According to Nine Lives’ official plot synopsis, Spacey’s character Tom Brand “is a billionaire whose workaholic lifestyle leaves him disconnected from his beautiful wife Lara (Jennifer Garner) and adoring daughter Rebecca.” This is quite similar to Fletcher Reede, Jim Carrey’s character in 1997’s Liar Liar, a successful lawyer whose workaholic lifestyle jeopardizes his relationship with his son. (As the trailer’s narrator puts it, as the abandoned son blows out his birthday candles, “What made him a successful lawyer also made him an unpredictable father.”)
The next year, there was Michael Keaton’s turn as Jack Frost, a father who, according to the film’s trailer, “had a beautiful wife and a loving son but his job kept him away from home.” After Frost misses his son’s hockey game, Keaton dies, then comes back to life as a snowman who “got a second chance to become the world’s coolest dad.” If Alejandro Iñárritu had any guts, this—not Batman—would have been the ur-text for Birdman.
Fast forward to 2009, when Eddie Murphy starred in a film called Imagine That. Cue, once again, Movie Trailer Voice Guy: “For Evan Danielson, life was all work and no play.” Luckily, via magical intervention, his daughter’s security blanket is able to tell the future, and her imaginary princess friends turn out to be a great source for stock tips. It might seem odd that Jim Cramer would be a nine-year old’s imaginary friend, but if you’ve watched Mad Money on CNBC, it kind of makes sense.
But the real granddaddies of Magic Workaholic Dream Fatherhood are Tim Allen and Robin Williams. Allen plays a MWDD in both 1994’s The Santa Clause and 2006’s The Shaggy Dog. (“As a lawyer, Dave Douglas has no rival,” the trailer for The Shaggy Dog explains. “As a father, he has no clue.”) Meanwhile, Williams underwent his own metamorphoses in both 1991’s Hook (in which he misses his son’s big baseball game for a business meeting) and to some extent in 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire (in which the transformation isn’t exactly magical but does involve the cosmetic powers of both Harvey Fierstein and Scott Capurro).
Shapeshifting is of course a well-trod genre of film and folklore in general. In fact, it’s D100 in the Aarne-Thompson Folktale Types and Motif Index.
But the real reason that this genre is so consistently plumbed in the American cinema of the ’90s and ’00s is that it so perfectly addresses our anxieties. Men have always worked, but these days the American male is—or at least feels—downwardly mobile. And at the same time as the American dad is feeling pressure to be the breadwinner, he’s also being given signals that he has to be the bread baker. He’s being told he has co-parenting duties; he’s getting messages that his economic standing is tenuous; and he’s being given few guidelines as to how to balance the two. He feels so pinched and anxious that it seems as if a magical intervention might be the only solution.
And while it might seem that being a cat, snowman, or man-sized vial of sodium pentathol is the real magic, it’s not. The real magic is that these transformations allow the dad to spend scads of uninterrupted time with his child. And then, via a series of tasks that are usually accomplishable quests, involving physicality, and not, say, talk therapy, rapprochement can be achieved.
Years ago, before American fathers were given the message that working was something to be balanced with family life, there were movies of manly transformation, but they usually had nothing to do with kids. (Unless the kids were the ones who were transformed, as in the original 1959 Shaggy Dog.) The 1964 film The Incredible Mr. Limpet, starring Don Knotts as a milquetoast who becomes a fish, centered on the tension between wimpiness and manliness. The anxiety was that Mr. Limpet the Man had little to offer the world, until Mr. Limpet the Fish helped the military sink enemy submarines. It was only through becoming a hybrid fish-man that he was able to become a real man. Tragically, Mr. Limpet was eventually filleted and served to Kevin Spacey’s character in Nine Lives, but the point remains. Back then, manliness was defined away from the sphere of the family; today, it is firmly within that sphere.
Which brings me to the meta-genius of the transformed workaholic dad genre. These films not only address our anxiety by delivering Hollwood high-concept brain-on-hold fare, but the very act of taking your child to see such films counts, in some small way, toward addressing the home/work balance. Time spent with kids seeing movies about dads who don’t spend time with kids must count for at least couple parenting points right?
It’s also worth considering why there are no transformative mom movies. In Pixar’s 2012 movie Brave, the heroine’s mother becomes a bear after a spell is cast, but it’s not a learning experience for the mother—instead, it’s a warning to the daughter to swallow her pride. The Lindsay Lohan–Jamie Lee Curtis version of Freaky Friday comes close, because the mom does indeed give a lot of attention to her career as a therapist, but it’s not quite the same: Freaky Friday is more about getting parent and child to see life from the other’s perspective; there are mutual transformations. In none of the Magic Workaholic Dream Dad films is the child ever depicted as at fault, unreasonable, or anything other than damp-eyed as he scans the stands of whatever youth sport he’s performing poorly at.
The explanation for the dearth of magically transformed moms is that mothers have always been expected to parent, and, in the eyes of studios that make these mass-appeal films, a woman shown setting aside mothering responsibilities in favor of career becomes irredeemable as the central character in a light comedy .
It’s sexist, and it’s a double standard, but it has also saved us from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Mama Bear, a business woman who went from stuffy to stuffed overnight! Mama Bear—she’s not one to toy with!