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Three Men and a Baby

It kills me to kick this retrospective off on a low note, but here we are. This is a movie starring Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Guttenberg, three actors who haven’t been relevant for at least ten years. Yes, Ted Danson and Tom Selleck are still working here and there, but let’s be honest. To pop culture at large, they’re still Sam Malone and Magnum, P.I. As for Guttenberg… *checks IMDB* Yep, Guttenberg is still alive. Could’ve fooled me.

Much like their lead actors, the film itself has pretty much completely disappeared into the ether in the 25 years since its release. Compared to other comedies of the era — Spaceballs; Ghostbusters; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Beetlejuice; etc. — this film is woefully obscure. Honestly, I’d forgotten the film had ever existed until I started researching for this series, and I’ll bet I’m not alone in that.

So why am I making such a big deal out of this, and why is the movie getting profiled here? Two reasons. Firstly, it was directed by none other than geek god and living legend Leonard Nimoy. Second, and more importantly, Three Men and a Baby was the highest-grossing domestic film of 1987. It wasn’t the biggest worldwide hit (we’ll be getting to that one later), but still. How could a movie earn more American cash than any other film released in its year and fall completely off the radar only a quarter-century later?

I’ll give you a hint: It stars Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Guttenberg.

We may as well start with the elephant in the room: The title. This film’s title clearly and completely states the film’s premise, and as you may have guessed, this premise is of the “one-joke” variety. In theory, it’s a wonderful joke with a ton of possible variations and an inherent emotional connection. These gentlemen don’t learn until too late just how much effort and preparation go into caring for a newborn, and that is indeed the basis for some relateable and funny moments. Additionally, they can’t explain at first how this baby came to be in their possession, which makes for something of an added comedy bonus.

The problem is that the film’s jokes all continue past the point of being funny, resulting in humor that’s forced and annoying. Also, since the movie’s focus is a baby, there’s naturally a copious number of excrement jokes. How lovely.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll admit that there is a plot somewhere in all of this tired comedy. Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly simple plot that doesn’t actually start until roughly 40 minutes into this 100-minute picture, and wraps up completely with 25 minutes left to go. So it’s really just something that the filmmakers put in because they had to pad it out to 100 minutes somehow.

The plot concerns a bunch of screw-ups with drug dealers, always a classic go-to generic villain in the “War on Drugs” heyday. More than that, the production design, the costume design, the cultural references, and the music are all extremely ’80s. Maybe that helped make the film such a box-office smash in its day, but it makes the movie incredibly dated by today’s standards.

But forgive me, maybe it’s best if I take a step back for a moment. Let’s start over from the top.

The three men of the title are an architect named Peter (Selleck), a cartoonist named Michael (Guttenberg), and an actor named Jack (Danson). They’re three immensely successful bachelors sharing an apartment in a building that Peter designed. The movie opens as the three of them celebrate Peter’s birthday with a lavish party, surrounded by friends, acquaintances, and presumably a few strangers.

In theory, opening a movie with a party seems like a great idea. It sounds like a good opportunity to establish the characters and the story. In practice, it starts the movie off on the completely wrong foot. There’s so much going on that it’s not easy to tell what to focus on or which characters we should bother remembering. More importantly, it does a grave disservice to our main characters. This is the time when we should be learning what makes them distinct from each other, but when all three of them are partying so hard, their rampant boozing and womanizing starts to run together.

It isn’t until the baby comes in when we learn that Peter is the responsible one, Michael is the irritated one, and Jack is the asshole who goes away for half the movie, leaving his roommates to clean up his kid’s messes (oh yeah, did I mention that the baby is Jack’s?). Though to be fair, Jack does get his due when he finally comes home. It was aggravating for one-third of the main cast to be completely absent while the other two shoulder all of the character development, but the pay-off to that approach is so very satisfying.

Additionally, it would be unfair of me not to mention that for what little they’re given, Danson, Guttenberg, and Selleck are really committing to their performances here. They are strongly devoted to selling the developments of their characters and their relationship with the infant. When they really start working together to raise a child (an hour in!), the film shows a great deal of heart.

Finally, this movie has a very powerful ace in the hole: The baby. I know it’s cheap to just show a baby onscreen and expect us to sympathize with it. I know it’s lazy to show an adult grow to care for a child and simply expect us to get emotionally attached. I deeply want to hate this movie for expecting me to like it for no other reason than because a baby is on the screen.

But goddammit.

Somehow, the movie manages to tap into that deep primal part of the human condition that inherently loves babies. I expect a part of that comes from the knowledge that this particular baby is wholly unremarkable. She’s not a demon child, she’s not particularly destructive, and her involvement in the “drug dealer” plotline is completely incidental. She didn’t ask to be involved in any of this zaniness, and she’s of course powerless to help any of it. This makes her immediately sympathetic.

Basically, the emotional core of this movie works. It’s cheap to the point of being unfair, but it works.

The problem is that once you get past that emotional core of Three Men and a Baby, there’s nothing to this movie but a paper-thin plot devoid of tension, characters only slightly more two-dimensional than cardboard, a couple of love interests who are thoroughly useless, and a one-joke premise that wears itself out very quickly. Hell, the premise needed an incredible amount of padding just to make for a feature-length movie. It also doesn’t help that the film has aged very poorly.

Sometimes, a strong premise can be enough to carry a film. In this case, it’s only good for 100 minutes of saccharine fluff with absolutely no teeth (if you’ll pardon the pun).

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Chris:

    A review that mirrors my own opinion of the movie. It’s far from the worst movie to be the top grossing of it’s release year domestically post 1980 (THE GRINCH takes those honours IMO)or indeed ever but it may be genuinely the most forgettable especially when the most memorable thing about the picture was that daft urban myth ie the ‘ghost’ boy. When you remember or rewatch all the enduring movie entertainments that were released that year, LETHAL WEAPON, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, ROBOCOP, PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, PREDATOR, THE UNTOUCHABLES to name a few, it still baffles me that it managed to effectively outgun everything else at the box office. Yes it had a then topical concept, the baby boom, and the spectacle of watching career men (yuppies basically) helplessly care for a baby but as you accurately describe it doesn’t really do anything but repeat the initial winning gag over the course of the movie.

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    So glad to hear you agree. Please feel free to check out the rest of my 25th Birthday series, I hope you’ll enjoy them. Thanks for reading.

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