Movies to Watch With Your Dad: “Hot Shots!”
What, precisely, is a movie to watch with your dad?
For this blog series to have any meaning, we must differentiate “movies to watch with your dad” from “movies to watch with your husband”, or “movies to watch with your bros/homies”, or “movies to watch with the guys from the transmission shop”.
These movies are not just “guy films”. They don’t simply slideshow things that men typically enjoy (which sadly is often enough to both greenlight a picture and make it financially successful). These movies reach farther. Compared to many “guy movies”, they bother to reach at all.
The question becomes, what makes your dad different from other men?
My father was born in 1952, in that awkward long tail of the baby boom which saw the death of Curly Howard, the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb, and the births of both Jeff Goldblum and Steven Seagal. It was a confusing time, for those of us trying to construct arbitrary narratives through human history, and my father is a confusing man. He was born too early to buy into the unfounded optimism of the 80s, and too late to be tainted by the 70s‘ bitter backlash against the failed experiments of the 60s. He is a “meta-era” man. Or perhaps a “post-era” one. (So what does that make me?)
Perhaps this is why his movies, especially the ones we shared together, are characterized by an atypical, reflective, almost postmodern masculinity. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Les Miserables. The Music Box. The Manchurian Candidate. He raised me in the marble-hard corridors of the Ivory Tower to understand that a man is a creature defined by his insistence to look within himself to find solutions to the obstacles in his environment. There was no need for my dad to make any special effort to expose me to society’s more popular male archetypes; he knew that would happen whether we wanted it to or not. But there was something perhaps still further that could be taught.
A dad is a man who has something to teach you because he loves you.
Hot Shots! is the third in Jim Abrahams seminal “exclamation mark” tetralogy. It is a film about fathers and sons, and about men doing the sacred impossible to get what they want out of life. It is also about how ridiculous that idea is, and how it is incredibly NOT sacred.
What could be a closer bonding experience between father and son than learning how to laugh at myself?
Because that is this film’s purpose: to call out and criticize the strange male cravings for violence and improbable romance. This film (and its sequel) are exercises in the joyous self-hate that the best satire induces.
And as with all great satire, the story spine holding the silliness together is absolutely solid and deadpan. Read the Wikipedia plot synopsis. The entire plot can be explained without a single joke. They took what could have been the plot of any of the three dozen slick-ass-Kenny-Loggins-hetero-normative-brohaim-locker-room testosterone showers produced between 1975 and 2001, and they turned harsh, deadpan lights onto it, so that we could see, and laugh at, the artifice as artifice, and at ourselves for being just the Tom and/or Dick and/or Harry who would fall for it.
Jim Abrahams’s special genius in this particular situation is in using the basest, silliest, most adolescent-male kinds of humor, in order to point out how base, silly, and adolescent-male the tropes of the Top Gun–Iron Eagle–Red Dawn–Days of Thunder genre truly are. The comedic “syntax” being used here, funny-sounding words, sexy women falling off pianos, soprano-inducing groin shots, this is the ur-language of the dude brain. All more complex thoughts, jokes, or emotions are generated in the frontal cortex as linear combinations of these cognitive atoms, which are stored, evenly distributed, between the lower brain stem and the testicles.
But of course [the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success, and this slapstick spelunk into the caves of andro-semiotics would, in other hands, be at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own snark. (We see this happen all the time.) But Abrahams’s films tend to achieve a perfect balance between fearlessness and lightness.
Too often we find film satire leaning too far one direction or another: either skipping lightly across the pool of their subject matter, afraid to get wet, shooting for maximum yuks-per-minute (Spaceballs, Transylvania 6-5000), or else all boldness and edge, obsessed with “skewering” their “target” with laughs of incredulity instead of real humor (Team America: World Police, Family Guy: Blue Harvest). Obviously, the results of these tactics often turn out to be fine films (due to other factors brought to bear), but I find they often lack a certain “nutritional completeness”, like bags of miniature Snickers bars.
To be worthy of watching with your dad, a movie should try to waste as little of his time as possible with just straight up film-candy. Because let’s face it, he’s getting older now, and you still have a lot of movies to watch together. The best of the Jim Abrahams comedies (like the Zucker brothers’) have that special quality of feeling like “complete” comedifications of their subject matter, a state that Patton Oswalt describes (in another context) as “no-meat-left-on-the-bone-of-the-idea”. All possible parodic angles are explored. All levels of comedy – from the most intellectual cultural references to the basest booger-oriented material – are picked clean. Even within the frame itself, there is no wastage; jokes occur far and near, in front and behind the focus, in the audio only, or maybe just off-screen.
In other words, there is a tremendous sense of meatiness and “value” to Hot Shots! despite its juvenile sensibilities, and we can attribute this to Jim Abrahams’s ruthless comedic and storytelling rigor. His long career in Hollywood is due to the same factors in anyone else’s long career, and it has nothing to do with his ability to tell a joke. He wants to make movies that glue people together, that broadcast a magnetic beam that suspends us above the dark, sticky complexities of our normal lives and relationships, and instead draws out from us great cackling gobs of joy that double in intensity when we are together with someone who cares about us.