Last night I went to a showing of Mr. Mom, the 1983 film about a middle-class man who loses his job and is forced to stay at home while his housewife restarts her job in an advertising agency and becomes a star. I had not thought about this film since I was a kid. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well it holds up. Keaton and Teri Garr are both great. Martin Mull plays a complete slimeball, which is perfect. Tambor is Tambor. Ann Jillian is a good comic seductress. Christopher Lloyd works very well in a very small role. Of course, the film is notable for its discussion of gender roles in the 1980s and for good reason. For those of you who haven’t seen it or forgotten about it, Keaton plays an engineer of some kind at a Detroit auto plant. He loses his job in the 1980s recession. Teri Garr gave her a previous career working in an ad agency. She manages to restart that career. That leaves Keaton at home taking care of the kids. All hell breaks loose. He loses his identity, she gains hers. He eventually comes to grips with the homemaking but her career is so successful that he feels left out and forgotten, a mirror of millions upon millions of housewives feeling the same. She deals with sexual harassment on the job. Eventually, the film ends (spoiler alert on a 34 year old movie!) in a farcical way that sells out the potential for female emancipation from the home on the job; it’s ambiguous whether Garr will still work but of course Keaton is rehired. It’s still pretty relevant today for a discussion of gender and work. Some of the comedy is pretty silly, but there is certainly nothing wrong with comedy as a way of getting at social problems and it isn’t so silly as to distract from it being not only a socially interesting movie but a good film too (although it doesn’t articulate a mass, class-based, anti-racist struggle against capitalism so what would a Jacobin review say!).
What I found interesting about Mr. Mom is that on top of this, it’s also a key film in depicting deindustrialization as it is happening. While focused on the middle-class and not the line workers, it is telling a very believable story for the early 80s–the disappearance of the auto industry. There’s a scene at a hiring agency with a bunch of manager types all looking for work and swapping recipes becuase they are all at home with no hopes and they laugh at the idea of finding work. To some extent this is a story of the United States in the recession but it’s also a specifically Detroit story as it focuses on the auto industry. Keaton takes pride in designing these cars (can we blame him for the horrible U.S. cars of the 1980s? Certainly it makes more sense than the ridiculous public narrative that the UAW is responsible, as if GM allowed the union to make production design choices) but while car designers will still be needed in the future, they may well not be in Detroit. Those jobs are disappearing, as is the basis of the Detroit economy. This obviously is not the focus here and there’s no discussion of this, but we can certainly read it back into the film.
Anyway, Mr. Mom is actually pretty good, 34 years after its release.