Control Nathan Rabin: My Father the Hero
Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place is currently in its fifth month of existence or so, which means that Control Nathan Rabin has also been around a little under five months. It’s the only column I write here that has never missed a week. Because I write it so frequently, I am forever on the search for new kinds of terrible movies to nominate, and write about for it.
I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Also, I don’t want to be redundant and just keep saying the same thing over and over again, wasting lots of space in the process. Besides, Marlon Wayans only makes so many movies, and half of those are unassailable masterpieces.
So, for the newest entry in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living saints who donate to this website’s Patreon page a choice between two impossibly dire-looking options, I decided to do something a little different and give patrons a choice between two Katherine Heigl projects from vastly different stages of her career: the 1994 wacky incest/pedophilia romp My Father the Hero or the universally maligned Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl romantic comedy The Ugly Truth.
Readers chose My Father the Hero by a hefty margin. Before I booted up Steve Miner’s little-loved comedy I found myself wondering whether Heigl was really that unbearable an actress or as insufferable a human being as her reputation suggests, or whether she’s a victim of a viciously sexist culture’s seething contempt for strong women and women who speak their mind.
Having just suffered through another god-awful Katherine Heigl movie, made far worse by the toxic presence of Heigl in a lead role, I think I can say with some authority that Heigl’s intense unpopularity—she’s right up there with Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton when it comes to women America loves to hate—can be attributed both to our viciously sexist culture’s seething contempt for strong women and women who speak their mind and Heigl being an unusually unlikable and unsympathetic actress.
Heigl was just starting out when My Father the Hero gave the widely despised Grey’s Anatomy actress a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a nubile fourteen year old out to convince the world that she enjoys a rigorous sex life with amuch-older “lover” of a brutish middle-aged man who is actually father Gerard Depardieu yet Heigl already possessed the strident unlikability of someone much older.
Even if I didn’t know Heigl, or the path her life and career would follow, I would still find myself asking, “Who is that beautiful young actress, and why is she so instantly and consistently loathsome and impossible to care about or root for?”
Heigl is unbearable as Nicole, a spoiled and entitled monster of privilege whose life revolves around shopping and chasing boys. She doesn’t have much of a relationship with French father Andre (Gerard Depardieu) and seems threatened that her divorced father is apparently serious about his relationship with a largely unseen girlfriend played in an uncredited cameo by Emma Thompson in what I can confidently say is not the role she will be remembered for.
Andre takes his gorgeous, nubile daughter on a romantic vacation to the Bahamas, where Nicole immediately takes an interest in multiple locals. Nicole’s feverish sexual desires center on an obnoxious boy named Ben (Dalton James), who she fears will reject her if he knew that she was a fourteen year old girl on a sexy island getaway with a father she sees so infrequently that it’s almost like he’s not her father at all.
So Nicole makes up an elaborate fiction that Andre is not her father, but rather a much-older lover with a dark and complicated past who saved her from a life of squalor and deprivation. This causes Ben to hate Andre but also to respect and fear him, and to want to prove himself the superior romantic suitor.
I always find it adorable when movies pretend that a beautiful teenaged girl who wants to have sex with a handsome teenaged boy must engage in a Normandy-level campaign of manipulation and strategy and fiendish exertion in order to get their target into bed. Now there are obviously exceptions, but I’d say 95 percent of the time, if the attractive teenaged girl simply asks the boy, “Wanna fuck?” or “Wanna fool around”, he’d gleefully acquiesce.
That certainly would have worked here but My Father the Hero has 89 minutes to pad out so instead of trying the simple, direct, effective route, Nicole instead decides upon an elaborate fiction that leads to everyone in the resort where they’re staying thinking her father is a pervert.
My Father the Hero is the product of a strange period in American film when Touchstone somehow imagined that Depardieu was primed to make a remarkable transformation from brooding, heavyweight French thespian to goofball funnyman in a series of light comedies like My Father the Hero, Bogus and Green Card.
Depardieu is not a natural physical comedian but this is a tropical Touchstone comedy, which means that seemingly half its runtime is taken up by waterskiing hijinks when an angry Ben decides to take out his anger on what he mistakenly believes is his love interest’s much older lover by leading the hapless, water-skiing Andre into harm’s way when he’s driving the boat pulling the oafish frenchman.
The hour-long waterskiing sequence is a glistening apex of Depardieu’s career, however, compared to the movie’s most famous and infamous scenes. My Father the Hero has a lot of “fun” with intimations of pedophilia and incest. This is never more gallingly apparent than during an infamous set-piece where Andre, who has been known to tickle the ivories, is implored to share his gift with the world by playing and singing a French song on the piano.
Andre of course chooses pedophile anthem “Thank Heavens for Little Girls” and is so exuberantly wrapped up in his own crooning that he does not notice that while he’s seemingly bragging about his inappropriate sexual relationship with a barely pubescent girl young enough to be his daughter, nearly the entire crowd files out in disgust.
This is the film’s nadir as well as its apex. It’s the only scene in the movie that realizes the script's enormous potential for unintentional laughter. The “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” sequence is so screamingly over-the-top in its wrongness that it somehow becomes right. If nothing else, it’s guaranteed to be the only thing I remember about this god-awful movie, which makes the mistake of showing audiences way too much of both of its leads.
I don’t need to see Depardieu’s fleshy, corpulent body, yet My Father the Hero finds him continually in a state of undress for no discernible reason aside from the film’s strange insistence that no form of sexuality could possibly be wrong if it can be giggled about. I similarly did not need to see a fourteen year old lead played by an actress around the same age as her character in a series of skimpy, skin-baring outfits.
I’m not saying that My Father the Hero has a pervy vibe but I wouldn’t be surprised if Roman Polanski was the second-unit director under a pseudonym, Humbert Humbert (yes, the fictional character from Lolita) ghost-directed (in more ways than one) and Woody Allen dropped by occasionally to “audition” actresses for the lead role and pick out wardrobe.
There are vicious pimps who sexualize their workers less than My Father the Hero does its 15 year old female lead. Heigl is a beautiful woman but I don’t want to be confronted with the ripe sexuality of any fifteen year old, let alone Heigl. If you enjoy her scenes here too much you should probably be placed on some sort of federal watch list.
I wouldn’t surprised if there was a draft of the script that featured a scene where father and daughter wake up in bed together after a few too many Pina Coladas, but the filmmakers were told that intimations of incest and pedophilia were fine and dandy but to actually establish that the faux-lovers are actual lovers would be going too far.
If Heigl's character was seventeen, the movie wouldn't be any funnier or better but the film would at least feel far less jarringly inappropriate in the way it sexualizes its female lead. I wouldn't enjoy a version of this movie with a more age-appropriate female lead but at least I wouldn't feel gross and dirty for watching it.
My Father the Hero asks, “Why can’t Lolita be a zany Touchstone tropical romp prominently featuring the music of future one-hit wonders Baha Men?” then proceeds to answer its own question.
The family sex comedy is so wrong that you wouldn’t even need to change the dialogue much to make it a gritty and disturbing psychosexual thriller about a troubled man and his sexually precocious 14-year-old daughter’s strange masquerade involving sex and identity and transgressions at a tropical resort where secrets are kept and crimes covered up. All it would take would be different music and different line readings because the bones of a truly disturbing sexual psychodrama are already here, they’ve just been dressed up in the metaphorical Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts of a mid-1990s Touchstone comedy.
Andre eventually finds out about his daughter’s lies and is predictably pissed. In the dark, psychodrama version of this story, this is probably where he murders her in a fit of rage, or they have hate-sex. Instead, after a brief explosion of anger, Andre helps his daughter hurl herself at the 17-year-old jerk of her dreams.
There’s even a sequence that cheekily references its star’s career-defining role in Cyrano De Bergerac when Andre advises his daughter on what she needs to say to win Ben’s heart. Again, as I established earlier, this really only needs to be, “Yeah, I’m totally interested in boning you!” but here she needs to spin a gossamer web of honeyed words in order to capture her asshole object of desire.
Depardieu’s persona is less “fun dad” than “brooding sex ogre.” He’s an Actor in the truest sense but here he’s sorely miscast here as a bumbling clown. That’s surprising because My Father the Hero is a movie Depardieu found so nice he made it twice, in France in French in 1991 and in 1994 as an American, English-language vehicle.
Thankfully, Depardieu seems to have learned his lessons. He hasn’t appeared in any version of My Father the Hero for 23 years so I think it’s probably safe to assume he’s finally done with a role he never should have accepted even once, let alone twice, in different languages and in different parts of the world.
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