How Fathers Disappoint Us, According to the Movies

How do fictional fathers disappoint us? Let us count the ways!

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Father's Day is a time to celebrate the man who brought you into this world (or the man who took over for the man who brought you into this world) with the gift of a table saw, necktie, or T.G.I. Friday's gift card. While greeting card companies, beer commercials, and the entirety of Western Civilization have no trouble celebrating men for fulfilling their most basic biological imperative, films have never quite been able to. Dads do bad things in movies and Moms do good things. Or, dad left and mom's still here. This may sound reductive, but film shows again and again that cinematic dads are basically assholes.

Pardon a moment of film geekery here, but part of the "Hero's Journey" (the structure upon which all studio movies are built) is "Atonement with the Father." To atone with the father, you probably have to have a pretty shitty relationship with your old man. So, if you follow Joseph Campbell's myth structure, it helps if your film dad is kind of a shit head. If you aren't pissed at your dad, you can't really make peace with him. Hence, all of film's villainous papas, from grizzled drunkards remembering their glory days to Darth Vader.

In honor of Father's Day, let's take a look at the most common ways dads have been terrible in movie history, from a tendency toward missing little league games to a penchant for filicide. Here's How Fathers Disappoint Us, According to the Movies.

Missing the Big Game

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As seen in: HookLittle Giants, Jingle All the Way, Angels in the Outfield, Field of Dreams

A movie father's relationship to his child's athletic career is a pretty good indicator of his overall worth as a dad. When a film shows dad playing catch with his little boy, especially in slo-mo next to a golden wheat field, you know that not only is he an awesome father, but odds are high that he is going to get hit by a semi-truck or killed in battle heroically defending his equally patriotic brethren before he can see his boy get his first varsity start.

When he doesn't show up at the game? You can rest assured he was sleeping off a hangover in a seedy motel with his mistress or closing a financial deal that will put a mom-and-pop chain of orphanages out of business. Whether he is a workaholic or an alcoholic, missing your child's game is cinematic shorthand for the fact that you are a grade-A douchebag. It doesn't matter that children's sports are boring. Apparently, you're supposed to attend these things sober, or you are dooming your child to decades of therapy and a starring role in a 90s Disney film.

Trying to Bone the Babysitter

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As seen in: Mystic Pizza, The Sound of Music, The Babysitters, Corrina, Corrina, Weekend with the Babysitter, The World According to Garp

These dang dads and their mid-life crises. It's not enough that they get themselves a red sports car to wrap around a tree while drunk. It isn't enough to quit their job to pursue their unrealistic dreams. They also want to slip the bone malone to every pretty young thing that watches their kid on the nights that mom works late. This cliche is such a Hollywood institution that even the beloved classic The Sound of Music is built on this rotten foundation of mixing the business of child care with the pleasure of baby making.

At least when it's the babysitter, the girls tend to be college-age or older. There's another nasty fatherly trend in film of prolonged sex fantasies involving a daughter's hottest friend, but we really don't need to get into that here.

Subjecting You to His Shitty Band

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As seen in: Boyhood, Jack Frost, Rudderless, A Mighty Wind, O, Brother Where Art Thou?, Crazy Heart

It's one thing to for a dad to cling to his unfulfilled desires and express them in the form of a pensive inner monologue. It's another thing entirely to subject your children to your deferred dreams in the form of band practice. Every musician thinks their band is cool as hell, even if they're playing obscure polka music at the local VFW. Any fatherly musicians out there can rest assured that no matter how cool your band actually is, your children will be mortified by it. You may think you look like this.

But the sad truth is that your kids will see you like this.

So, even if you don't hang up your axe on your first day as a proud papa, at least do your kids a favor and keep them far away from your frustrated music career. Otherwise, you may find yourself as a pathetic character in act one of your son or daughter's future biopic.

Pressuring You to Take Over the Family Business

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As seen in: Austin Powers, There Will Be Blood, The Godfather, It's A Wonderful Life, Young Frankenstein, The Empire Strikes Back, Zoolander

There's nothing film dads love more than forcing their artistic, creative children into a life of drudgery doing the very thing that made them into miserable pieces of shit that don't care about their children's hopes and dreams in the first place. Because really, what else is family for?

This strategy turns out one of two ways: bad and worse. Sure, things turned out okay for Old George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life.

But that was only after an attempted suicide and intervention by a chubby angel. Generally speaking, this is your best case scenario.

A good rule of thumb for movie dads: if no one is clambering to take over your business, you probably have a pretty shitty business.

Going to Prison

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As seen in: Con Air, He Got Game, O, Brother Where Art ThouGoodfellasStarred Up, Raising Arizona

Rarely did they actually do anything that bad. Often, they didn't do anything wrong at all. Usually, they are just victims of a broken system. But, despite all of the reasons they shouldn't be there, movie dads just can't stay out of prison. These dang dads are always at the wrong place at the wrong time. If you're a movie villain, your best bet is to frame a dad because they will definitely go to prison. If your movie child is between the ages of 7 and 12, you'd better believe that you are going away for a long time ... or at least until right around your child's eighteenth birthday.

There is one small comfort for you, children of fictional inmates. Your daddy has a surprisingly good chance of pulling off an unlikely escape and making it home with just enough time to impart some words of wisdom before being hauled back. So, at least that's something.

Making You Jump Through Hoops For Your Inheritence

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As seen in: Billy Madison, Brewster's Millions, Arthur, Greedy, Seven Chances, The Bachelor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Every father wants to set up their children for financial stability if they can. Movie dads want to do this too, but they also want to teach their children a lesson and/or control their life while doing so. That's just good business. A good father knows how to use their financial leverage to, say, force their children to marry someone or demand that they adhere to a particular set of social norms. What's the point of amassing a fortune if you can't cause physical and emotional distress for your progeny from beyond the grave?

Sure, these post-mortem financial plots sound harsh, but without them, the kids probably would never learn a valuable lessons and/or never meet the woman of their dreams, right? 

That is correct.


Inflicting Military Discipline On Kids Due to Undiagnosed PTSD

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As seen in: American Beauty, Born on the Fourth of July, American Sniper, Stop-Loss

PTSD is played for a variety of tones on film. Sometimes we get a comedic viewpoint of a harsh father who makes sure to flaunt his military record in front of his daughter's potential boyfriends. Sometimes you get the misplaced manic intensity of Walter Sobcheck (who, thankfully, doesn't seem to be a father).

Other times, things are far less funny. Difficult adjustments, depression, and violent outbursts are just a few of the souvenirs dads bring back to their family from war. Such feelings can lead to crying in a garage while it's raining.

Cinematic dads, thank you for your fictional sacrifice. It's just a bummer your trauma has to be visited vicariously upon your family. 

Showing Up After a Long Period of Absence Expecting to Be a Part of Your Life

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As seen in: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Tender Mercies, The Wrestler, Big Fish, Somewhere, Boyhood, Interstellar, He Got Game, About Schmidt, Crazy Heart

If dads didn't show up out of nowhere and expect to be a part of their kids' lives again, a full third of independent American cinema wouldn't exist. It's often unclear what these dads were doing during throughout their child's formative years that kept them away, though it's almost always assumed that it involved drinking. It's also usually unclear what led to their sudden change of heart, but damn it, they want back in, and the most melancholy indie pop of the day will serve as a soundtrack. 

Oh, and there's one other thing that is always true in this situation ...

Becoming a Bitter Grizzled Drunkard

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As seen in: Crazy Heart, Boyhood, Sling Blade, Tender Mercies, Touching Home, Flight, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

If we listed every film where a drunken father is deployed, we would be here all day. Nothing peps up a "teen underdog" story, a "woman self-actualizing and leaving her no-good man" story, or an "eleventh hour fatherly redemption" story like a a drunkard slurring and throwing beer cans before passing out. The best part is that you can import this character into pretty much any environment. Even dry counties have mouthwash. In fact, any movie dad is susceptible to becoming the drunk movie dad, even Denzel.

Denzel, no!

If you're going to write a booze soaked dad into your movie, it is important that you honor the cinematic traditions of the drunken father. If you really want to nail the stereotype, you need to hit a few key character points. First off, he has to have at least a five o'clock shadow. If the actor has a little premature grey, then all the better. Second, you're going to want him to be sitting on a porch alone when he drinks. And finally you'll need him to tell his son that he is "good for nothing" or will "never amount to anything" before a violent outburst. Ideally, you'll want to hire a famous country singer as the actor.

Or have a famous actor play a country singer.

That's the drunk dad sweet spot right there.

Losing Savings Gambling or in Get Rich Quick Scheme

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As seen in: Vegas Vacation, Luckytown, We Bought a Zoo, The Full Monty, Daddy Daycare

Sometimes kids just exist in movies to have their college savings drained thanks to daddy's hubris. This can happen in any number of ways. It could be bad investments. It could be a gambling problem. It could be a get rich quick scheme. It could be (my personal favorite) uprooting the entire family and forcing them to live out dad's midlife crisis / new business venture.

A real-life six year-old, or a fictional six year-old not in a Cameron Crowe movie, would likely say something like, "We bought a fucking zoo? Are you out of your damn mind?" 

Don't pity the children too hard. Yes, their father is destined to fail. Investors are destined to pull their funding. Bookie's goons are destined to break their knee-caps. But, wouldn't you know it, their father's failings are going to teach them the resourcefulness they need to self-actualize, or whatever, even if they have to endure a little embarrassment along the way.

Haunting You and Maybe Asking You to Avenge His Death

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As seen in: Hamlet, Ghost DadJack Frost, The Lion King, Strange Brew, Field of Dreams, Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past,

Damn, dad. You hassled me enough when you were alive. "Mow the lawn." "Clean your room." Now, you want me to avenge your death?

Mark Rylance claimed that there have been more books written about Hamlet alone than the Bible. Unless my Googling skills are deficient, it looks like the jury is still out on that one. What is undeniable is that Hamlet has had a profound impact on art high and low for hundreds of years. One of the byproducts of the play's massive influence is that there are a lot of ghost dads haunting sons and demanding revenge on the silver screen.

This trope has been used to great effect over the years.

And to not so great effect.


Trying to Kill You

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As seen in: Star Wars, The Shining, The Stepfather, Oedipus the King, The Hulk, Jumanji, The Quick and the Dead, Eraserhead, Austin Powers

The story of the father trying to kill the son or vice-versa has a longer literary heritage than even Shakespeare's ghost dad. Since the days of the Ancient Greeks, man has told stories about father-son conflict that ends in death. Atoning with the father may feel at odds with mortal combat, but, sometimes the only way to find atonement is by hashing things out the old fashioned way.

And, really, as a storytelling trope, you can't beat the father son duel. If it was good enough for the ancient Greeks and it's good enough for Star Wars, it should be good enough for you and your treacherous father who is using mind games to lure you to the dark side, whom only you can defeat.

Happy Father's Day!

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