Sort of a "Nothing in Common" without the laughs or "Big Fish" without the fantasy, "When Did You Last See Your Father?" is a dry fathers-and-sons drama that winds up being more bitter than sweet. It's a film that struggles to be sentimental without being schmaltzy, and the restraint leaves it being just plain mopey.
Adapted from the memior by poet Blake Morrison, "Father" has Blake (played by Colin Firth as an adult, Matthew Beard as a teen, and Bradley Johnson as a child) returning home as his father (Jim Broadbent) slips away in his final days. The father being too ill to welcome his son, Blake spends most of his time reminiscing about his troubled youth, when he spent his teen years angry at dad.
Sometimes the point seems to be that teens are often angry, or embarrassed, or frustrated with their parents for no good reason - all part of the teen years, where we think we know more than our folks. But "Father," scripted by David Nicholls ("Starter for 10") and directed by Anand Tucker ("Hilary and Jackie," "Shopgirl"), gives Blake plenty of reason to be upset: his father is having an affair, his father is always insulting him, his father does not show enough love. He's not a lovable rapscallion or a complicated brute; seen here in the drab bits and pieces of flashback, we never get enough of a picture of the guy to think anything of him other than "kind of a jerk, but not an interesting jerk."
Is this the movie's intentions? Often we get the impression that these flashbacks aren't so much the truth as they are Blake's hazy interpretations of them. And they surely fit within that scope, as they often involve, say, Blake's first driving lesson (dad delivers a rare moment of happiness), or Blake's attempts at romance (dad's bad timing interferes). Is the movie painting a worse picture on purpose, faulty memories colored by heated emotions?
But then we see modern episodes. Consider an early scene, when the father attends an award ceremony for the son, now an accomplished writer. Even here, with the acclaim of his son's peers, the father cannot be happy, still talking about how he wanted the boy to be a doctor instead. Broadbent is terrific in the scene (indeed, he's good throughout, despite the flimsy material), especially when the dad sets into his routine of groping for the center of attention. But is this real drama, or Morrison's cathartic griping, openly venting about his daddy issues?
Throughout this, we barely come to understand Blake himself, as he wanders aimlessly around town, and Firth's performance wanders with it. Flashbacks to younger Blake's first sexual encounters do little to enhance the characters; they play as half-formed memories that would only be interesting to the people being remembered.
The title itself (shortened from the original UK title "And When Did You See Your Father?") is a smarmy piece of self-importance. The film stops itself at the end for Firth to deliver a narration monologue about the title, which doesn't ask "when did you last see him," but "when did you last really, really see him, and I mean for who he is for real?" It's a point we could have discovered for ourselves had the screenplay not shoved it right out there. (The slo-mo shots of ash-spreading celebration during this scene betrays the film's earlier stern efforts to avoid cheap manipulation. Here, Tucker suddenly tries too hard to go the other way, and fails again.)
But the film is full of that sort of obviousness. Tucker fills the screen with overly-composed shots of characters standing beside mirrors, a metaphor gimmick he employs too many times to count. The script doubles over as it attempts to explain and re-explain simple plot points and character feelings. And the whole damn thing spends more time trying to be cinematically clever than it does trying to be dramatically engaging. Despite some engaging performances, "Father" is a bore of a memoir, in which people we don't like reflect on memories too fractured and unformed to capture our interest.
Video & Audio
"When Did You Last See Your Father?" looks just fine in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Grain is minimal, and the restrained color scheme is well maintained.
Focusing mainly on the dialogue, the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack keeps most of the action up front, clean and clear. The musical score comes through nicely. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included.
A commentary track features Anand Tucker, who spends most of the time explaining dramatic metaphors and character motivations, and less on making-of facts. It's a way of broadening one's outlook on the story, although it's also a bit dry.
Seven deleted scenes (8:23; 2.35:1 flat letterbox) show why they were wisely cut, with redundant character moments and unnecessary directorial show-off moments (a scene shot to look underwater!) that don't fit the rest of the picture. Five of these scenes include optional commentary from Tucker, who explains his reasons for removing them from the final cut.
The film's theatrical trailer (2:05; 2.35:1 anamorphic) and a series of previews for other Sony titles round out the set. A Blu-ray promo and the trailer for "Brick Lane" play as the disc loads.
Fans of Broadbent may wish to Rent It to get a glimpse of the actor making the best out of shady material.