By Richard T. Jameson
Special to MSN Movies
Back in 1993, during a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the auteur theory in America, critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader identified a then-current Hollywood trend: "If you learned your craft in episodic television, you learned two things. One: how to take orders and be on time. And two: how to please people. So now who are our 'auteurs'? Meathead, Laverne and Opie." Which was to say, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall and Ron Howard, respective acting alumni of "All in the Family," "Laverne & Shirley," and "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days."
Laverne and Meathead soon ceased to matter much, but Opie gives no sign of slowing down, and he continues to direct movies as if he were following the season bible for some TV series and determined that every second of airtime keep people pleased. An Opie opus is dependably formulaic on every front and, from shot to shot, cut to cut, numbingly predictable. Yet that's coherence of a sort, and a way of compensating for the lack of an applause sign to cue the audience.
It's exasperating that Ron Howard is almost certainly a nice man. Seeing him on TV to promote his latest picture, you realize he's exactly who Opie Taylor and/or Richie Cunningham would have grown up to be. He's been married to the same woman forever, he reserves roles in just about every movie for actor dad Rance and actor brother Clint, and he's even named his kids after the town — and, in one case, a certain country road — where each was conceived. Family values. You can't knock 'em.
His directorial career began promisingly. "Grand Theft Auto" (1977), which he agreed to star in if Roger Corman let him direct, was good-natured drive-in product. "Night Shift" (1981) was cheerfully ribald, especially coming from a squeaky-clean TV kid, and made a star of Michael Keaton ("Is this a great country or what?"). "Splash" (1984), with Tom Hanks when he was new and Daryl Hannah as a mermaid named Madison, remains an enchanting comedy-fantasy-romance, and just maybe Ron Howard's best movie. "Cocoon" (1985) was swell till it lurched into bald-faced Spielberg rip-off. The tracking shot a few steps behind the geezers as they shuffle toward the ballroom is lovely.
But after that, the ingredients of Howard-world curdled fast. Michael Keaton turned terminally obnoxious in "Gung Ho" (1986), which squandered a rich subject — the rust-belting of America — by featuring a trumped-up crisis in every reel and double-talking every issue it pretended to engage. The George Lucas-sanctioned "Willow" (1988) was a fairy tale bereft of magic, albeit way more palatable than "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" 12 years later.
"Parenthood" (1989) is beloved by many, and some good actors do nice things in it. Yet in Howard's career it's the moment when definitive wrongness locked in. The direction so relentlessly palpates the audience for sentimental effect, one marvels it hasn't left bruises. In a more strident yet essentially similar key, "The Paper" (1994), depicting 24 hours in the life of a workplace "family," is so orchestrated for hit-your-mark, get-your-laugh effect, every actor leans into his or her role as if personally responsible for getting a TV pilot sold.
The Oscar vehicles are only somewhat better. "Apollo 13" (1995) may be the flattest movie I've ever seen; its epic tale is true-life, almost literally cosmic, yet the film's utterly devoid of resonance. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen make "Frost/Nixon" (2008) worthwhile, but as with so much of Howard, it's a movie you can watch a few seconds ahead of what's on-screen: He'll say this ... then, in two beats, a reaction shot of the other guy ... held a nanosecond too long ... until that guy says thus-and-so ... Two times out of three, thus-and-so will be exactly what that guy says. Really, such movies watch themselves. And clearly Ron Howard loves making that happen, and figures that's his job.
There's one big shoe waiting to drop. At the 2001 Oscars, Ron Howard was named best director for "A Beautiful Mind" while Robert Altman and David Lynch stood applauding politely in the aisle. Talk about definitive wrongness. Still, revisiting "A Beautiful Mind" reminded me that for long stretches it's much more satisfying than the usual Ron Howard experience. The main reasons are Russell Crowe and the literally scintillating camera eye of Roger Deakins. What they deliver is beyond predicting, and their director doesn't get in their way.
How's that for damning with faint praise? Ron Howard, a director who never gets ahead of his audience and stays out of his actors' way. Now that's taxing!