Like Father premieres Aug. 3 on Netflix
About two years ago, I found myself scrolling through Netflix offerings, looking for a comedy — any comedy. If you’re familiar with the streaming service, you know how difficult it can be to sort through its barrage of vaguely recognizable movies buried under the wrong category titles. I landed on one called For a Good Time, Call…, directed by Jamie Travis and written by Katie Anne Naylon and Lauren Miller Rogen. Its premise: two frenemies moving in together to start a phone-sex hotline. “Okay, fine,” I thought. At least it might be National Lampoon’s level of dumb. About twenty minutes in, I realized I was watching a nuanced, thoughtful portrayal of female friendship that transcended its shlocky premise with crisp dialogue and a sense of realism often missing in indie comedies: I believed these characters deeply cared for one another.
Fast-forward to now, as I’m watching the new Netflix release, Like Father, starring Kelsey Grammer as Harry and Kristen Bell as Rachel, an estranged father and daughter who end up on a Royal Caribbean honeymoon cruise together after Rachel is left at the altar. What an implausible premise! Surely, this will be a dumb romp to showcase its two stars’ talents for comic hyperbole! Nope. And thank God. Because Like Father, it turns out, is an emotional, heartfelt depiction of what it’s really like to reconnect with a loved one after they’ve hurt you irreparably, but with some solid laugh lines and none of the melodramatic sap. Against all odds, this little indie (possibly bankrolled by the cruise line?) delivers a powerful punch. I was not at all surprised to find that it’s the feature directorial debut of Miller Rogen, whose writing in For a Good Time, Call… had left such an enduring impression.
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Grammer hasn’t embodied his Frasier Crane character in fourteen years, and yet it’s still something of a shock to see him play against that type. Here he takes the form of a good-natured, wincing, soft-spoken bachelor. In cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s lighting, the crow’s feet around Grammer’s eyes are pronounced, charming. (Tierney’s work here is startlingly fine, with careful compositions that play with the natural light of the open ocean.) Miller Rogen shows Harry flaws and all, both visually and in her writing.
Harry left Rachel and her mom when Rachel was only five. As the title suggests, Rachel has become the same kind of distant workaholic her father was, but Miller Rogen doesn’t throw that in our faces. Each character possesses enough depth of dimensions to prevent a simplistic plot of mirroring.
What’s most striking is that Miller Rogen again and again trades the too-easy punchline for the poignant glance. And as the story goes on, multiple moments of reckoning between Harry and Rachel elicited tears from me every time. The movies usually like to put long-lost family members together with a big hug and an unearned “I love you” in the end, but Miller Rogen seems to understand that’s too treacly to be real.
Here Bell, who straddled the comic and dramatic so memorably in Veronica Mars, feeds off Grammer’s subdued performance. At one point, Rachel loses her temper and bursts into tears while her voice breaks, and I realized how seldom Bell is allowed to stretch into dramatic roles. These are two phenomenal performers giving their all to a sharp family drama disguised as an outrageous cookie-cutter comedy. I had no idea how much Like Father was something I needed.