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Family Matters

Talking about remakes is always sticky ground for reviewers. There are valid reasons for reminding people that a story is not original -- especially when the remake is not sold as such, but is foisted on an innocent public by lazy, plagiarizing filmmakers. However, when earnest, enthusiastic people simply want to retell a beloved story, with a cast and style suited for their generation, then comparing the remake with the original is comparing apples and oranges.

That was the case four years ago when the writing/directing team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer resurrected Father of the Bride, the Spencer Tracy/Joan Bennett/Elizabeth Taylor classic from 1950, and turned the modern roles over to Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Kimberly Williams. Was the Father of the Bride of the '90s as good as the Father of the Bride of the '50s? Probably not, but who cares? The Meyers/Shyer update was entertaining in its own right, a gentle family fable that fit well into its time.

That's pretty much the case with Father of the Bride, Part II. This one is less of a copy than the first; it's not simply a remake of Father's Little Dividend, the original sequel to the original movie, but a mix of Dividend with some ideas from Never Too Late, a 1965 less-than-classic starring Maureen O'Sullivan and Connie Stevens. From Dividend Meyers and Shyer get the idea of the happy father of the bride (Martin) suddenly having to confront grandfatherhood; from Never Too Late, they get the notion of the mother of the bride (Keaton) getting pregnant at the same time as her daughter (Williams), which means Martin's George Banks has to reconfront fatherhood as well.

But what makes the movie work is the way the Meyers/Shyer team work their own ideas into the borrowed ones. The opening credits of Father of the Bride, Part II play against a long, sugary look at the warmly lit world of the Banks family. Gentle, wholesome music plays as the camera offers a loving look at a white picket fence, moves into the home, passes by a refrigerator decorated with typical family detritus and then finally offers a loving look at a "World's Greatest Dad" mug. This opening shot goes a long way toward setting the movie's tone: a bit cluttered, sometimes sappy, but familiar and frequently delightful.

Not only are Martin, Keaton and Williams back for Part II, so is Martin Short as Franck Eggelhoffer, the free-spirited love child of Quentin Crisp and Hattie McDaniel. In the first Bride, the Franck character as a demented bridal consultant was an original twist thrown in by Meyers and Shyer. Here, Franck returns to help with the nesting. That's the plot reason, anyway. More obviously, Franck is back because the character is irresistible. Franck and his assistant Howard Weinstein (B.D. Wong) are hired, against George Banks' predictable protests, to oversee the construction and decoration of an addition to the house that will be the baby's suite.

Franck all but moves into the Banks' home to work on what he calls "Baby Land," offer medical advice and lead the pregnant mother and daughter in aerobics. In a brief, bouncy scene, Franck struts to the music, while his big-bellied charges shuffle in time, and this little exercise class niftily conveys the expecting trio's happiness. Martin Short is perhaps better at seeming pleased than any other actor alive. Without Short's talent for portraying joy, his foppish, silly character would be a cartoon. With Short's sparkle, his Franck is more than ascots and an outrageous accent. Franck offers the women a confidant -- someone who will beam at their stories and fuss over them -- and he offers George a foil -- someone he can fuss at.

Nina, Banks' wife, is thrilled about being both new mother and new grandmother, and while she and her daughter, Annie, are beaming, George has a dandy midlife crisis.

Diane Keaton still has lovely legs, but she's come a long way since Annie Hall. And while Steve Martin's dad role has some sitcom clumsiness, his straightforward performance here may be the best thing he's ever done. None of the episodes in this movie are particularly unique; it's all standard "I resent my son-in-law" and "my husband's a selfish pig" stuff. But the actors' shining eyes and sincere line readings give the story strength.

The new telling contains some missteps. The other grandparents are very nearly reduced to cartoons, and there's an unlikely and tiresome episode concerning the Banks' home and a wrecking ball. Similarly, there are glitches in the film's efforts at what is probably supposed to be "realism." Father's Little Dividend had some talk about avant-garde ideas concerning childbirth, but that was just talk; the 1951 film made no attempt to reveal the sweaty, sticky aspects of pregnancy. In contrast, Father of the Bride, Part II proudly gives us hospital scenes complete with fetal heart monitors and panting women. But when it comes to what women go through in the long months before the blessed event -- swollen ankles and varicose veins -- Bride, Part II offers its own censorship. Keaton and Williams may have prosthetic bellies, but their hips and legs remain stylishly slender. Filmmakers in the '50s were coy about birds and bees; filmmakers in the '90s are coy about the possibility of less-than-ideal bodies.

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