The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
The best Star Trek movie is a comedy. In 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew of the USS Enterprise travels back in time to circa-1986 San Francisco to get ahold of a couple of humpback whales. (There’s a strange space probe out there causing havoc and broadcasting whale song, but whales are extinct in the future. It’s a whole thing.) The heart of the movie lies in the Enterprise crew wandering through contemporary America, getting into misunderstandings and hijinks, reflecting on the absurdity of late-20th-century conventions. It’s an environmentalist fable, but the parts that everyone remembers are the fish-out-of-water gags.
Star Trek IV was a big hit, the No. 5 film at the box office in 1986. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the franchise for decades, had helmed the third and fourth Star Trek movies, which were enough to establish his career as a director. Nimoy’s first non-Star Trek directorial effort was another story about people ripped out of their comfort zones, forced to care for a mysterious and vulnerable creature. This time, the heroes are swinging-bachelor ’80s yuppie assholes, and the mysterious creature is a human child. Three Men And A Baby came out on Thanksgiving weekend of 1987, and it was an out-of-nowhere smash, earning more than 10 times its reported $11 million budget and becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year. In a very different world, this thing was a four-quadrant blockbuster.
In retrospect, Three Men And A Baby is a weird one. A remake of a French comedy from a few years earlier, the film stretches its single-joke premise—three clueless single guys have to take care of an infant—about as far as it can possibly go. Two of its three stars, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson, were TV guys who’d never made much of an impression in the movies. The third, Steve Guttenberg, was, at least on paper, a legit movie star. In a four-year run starting in 1984, Guttenberg banged out four Police Academy movies, as well as Cocoon and Short Circuit. All of them were hits. Guttenberg really found a market for his particular brand of sensitive smarm, but his run didn’t last long after Three Men. Less than a decade later, Guttenberg was a Simpsons punchline.
So Three Men And A Baby was a movie with a relatively inexperienced director and three stars who weren’t quite stars. It’s also a bad movie, a hacky and generic sitcom-level comedy. The jokes are predictable and easy. The premise is wildly sexist in every possible direction—to the men who become utterly incompetent when confronted with a dirty diaper and to the women who, the movie assumes, are the people who should naturally be dealing with dirty diapers. The plot makes no sense. The music—mostly synthy soft-rock yowlers from artists like Peter Cetera and John Parr—is dogshit. Three Men is set in New York but mostly filmed in Toronto, and you can absolutely tell. And then there are the three men.
The title characters—the men, not the baby—are supposed to be smooth, urbane bad-boy city dwellers. (We know they’re bad boys because Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy” plays over the opening credits.) But all of them suck. Danson’s character, the baby’s actual father, is a flake. Guttenberg’s is a dolt. Selleck’s is the type of blowhard who, at his own birthday party, lectures crowds about old NBA playoff games and forces them to watch the tapes over and over. These guys are all best-friend roommates, but we never learn why they like each other, or why we’re supposed to like any of them. All that matters is that they have their lives disrupted when a small child, with a note in her cradle, shows up outside their apartment door one day.
The justifications for the kid’s sudden arrival are barely a factor. Danson’s character is an actor who had a fling with a co-star a while back, and she’s decided that she can’t handle the pressure of parenthood, so she drops the kid at Danson’s house without even alerting him to the baby’s existence beforehand. Danson is off in Turkey shooting a movie, so Selleck and Guttenberg, not sure what to do, attempt to care for the baby. Nobody tells Danson. (Danson doesn’t return until the movie is more than half over. We now know that he’s the most authentically funny person in the cast, but he never gets much chance to prove it.) Nobody attempts to alert any authorities or track down the mother. The characters almost never ask for help, or accept offers of help, despite obviously being in deep over their heads. Nobody acts in a way that’s even remotely logical—a bit ironic, considering the director.
The whole point of the movie is watching these three doofs half-ass their way through suddenly imposed parental duties. They change diapers. They buy formula. They cancel dates. They sing the kid to sleep. That’s pretty much it. But that’s not enough for a feature-length movie, so we get a stapled-on subplot about heroin traffickers threatening the baby and suspicious police detectives sniffing around. It’s all tragically dumb, and it’s also truly strange to behold in a family comedy. Apparently, the heroin-trafficking story arc comes straight from the original French film. For whatever reason, the American producers left it in. Even in the moment, critics like Roger Ebert wondered why.
This was a weird little blip where just about every American studio comedy had to end in some kind of action set-piece. Three Men And A Baby followed Ghostbusters, Back To The Future, Crocodile Dundee, The Golden Child, Stakeout, and two Beverly Hills Cop movies—all hit comedies with climactic set-pieces that we’re supposed to take seriously. It must’ve felt like a prerequisite. And maybe that’s why we get the spectacle of Tom Selleck burying a smack smuggler at a construction site, with half an hour still left to go in the film.
Selleck’s character isn’t the kid’s father, but he’s still the star of the movie. He’d been the original choice to play Indiana Jones, but had just begun starring in the TV series Magnum, P.I., and the Magnum producers wouldn’t let him take the time off. Before Three Men And A Baby, Selleck hadn’t starred in a film since the 1984 sci-fi flop Runaway, but he’d been Magnum for seven seasons. As a presence, Selleck radiates capability, the quality that has kept him on TV to this day. He’s 6'4", tall enough to tower over every actor on set. He’s got a face like a wood carving. It looks like you could smash a cinderblock over his mustache without knocking a hair out of place. That’s the version of Selleck that would’ve been familiar in the ’80s—the one who blithely cruised through a different adventure every week without so much as denting his Ferrari.
Three Men And A Baby takes this unflappable guy and puts him in everyday situations where he finds himself flapped. (Most of the time, Guttenberg and Danson are simply sidekicks. In the sequel, Selleck falls in love with the kid’s mother and officially takes over the primary father role that he’d already been playing.) The movie asks us to believe that Selleck is utterly unfamiliar with human children—that, for instance, he has no idea what the word “toddler” means. It’s not entirely clear how old the kid is, or how long the kid is staying with these three guys, but the movie isn’t really interested in the baby. It’s interested in seeing Tom Selleck reduced to bumbling-chump status.
There’s probably something generational in that. Considering that Mary, the baby of Three Men And A Baby, was presumably born sometime in early 1987, Three Men might be one of the first millennial movies, or at least one of the first movies about the existence of millennials. Three Men And A Baby was part of a small wave of films about the problem of dealing with new babies: Baby Boom in 1987, For Keeps? in 1988, She’s Having A Baby and Look Who’s Talking in 1989. Baby boomers were having a whole lot of kids in those days, and apparently a lot of them wanted to watch comedies about the experience.
Three Men And A Baby also came four years after Mr. Mom, the movie where a young Michael Keaton loses his job and has to assume parenting responsibilities. There’s probably some widespread anxiety wound up in the success of films like these: Parents seeing a breakdown in gender roles, fathers having to take care of children in ways that their fathers hadn’t had to. Clearly, it was smart business to turn those feelings into broad, reassuring comedies where everything works out in the end. At the big conclusion of Three Men And A Baby, after the three men have rid themselves of their nefarious dope-smuggler antagonists, they invite the kid’s mother to come live with them in their utterly absurd Manhattan apartment. All of a sudden, everybody’s happy, and nobody minds that the mom attempted to abandon the kid, without warning or explanation, in the first place.
As it happens, the No. 2 movie of 1987 was another movie about a baby-boomer man and his anxiety over his own domesticity. That movie is Fatal Attraction, and it approaches the problem from a pretty different angle. In retrospect, the moviegoers of 1987 were really working out some issues.
Three Men And A Baby has aged in strange ways. Part of it is the sheer ’80s-ness of it all: Ted Danson rocking puffy pirate shirts, Tom Selleck playing frisbee with a button-up tucked into tiny shorts. The guys’ Manhattan apartment is a nightmare hallucination. Guttenberg’s character has painted dog-ass ugly illustrations all over the walls, and these guys have a jukebox, a pool table, a pinball machine, hanging plants, and an old-timey telephone with an earpiece. It just looks ridiculous. But also, we’re now living in an era when it’s generally assumed that men can do at least a tiny bit of parenting if they have to. It’s harder to accept the idea that three cool and likable middle-aged guys would have no idea how to change a diaper or buy a baby bottle.
Three Men And A Baby is not a beloved classic of ’80s cinema. If anyone mentions it today, it’s probably because of the persistent urban legend that’s been following it for decades. In one scene, a human shape quietly and creepily looms in the background. For years, the rumor was that a boy had died by suicide in the house where the movie was filmed, that his ghost had been captured on film. It’s really a cardboard cutout of Danson’s character. They filmed Three Men on a Toronto soundstage; no kids had killed themselves on set. Maybe it’s telling that the easily debunked ghost story has lasted a lot longer than anything else the movie had to offer.
The movie has not exactly left a towering legacy. There was one sequel, 1990’s moderately successful Three Men And A Little Lady, which features a scene where the three guys do an exaggerated comedy rap at the kid’s bedtime. This scene is, without exaggeration, the worst thing that I have ever seen in my life. Three Men did not propel Selleck, Guttenberg, or Danson to tremendous movie stardom. (Danson has established himself as one of the all-time great TV comedy actors, but Three Men is little more than a footnote in his overall career.) Around 2010, there was talk of all three getting back together for another sequel called Three Men And A Bride, but it never happened.
So Three Men And A Baby mostly stands as a strange little historical curio: a clumsy mid-budget comedy, directed by Mr. Spock, that somehow, in its moment, caught a zeitgeisty wave and took off before mostly evaporating from the popular consciousness. It did not live long, but it prospered.
The contender: Three Men And A Baby aside, 1987 was a pretty great year for American blockbuster cinema. Fatal Attraction, Moonstruck, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing, and The Witches Of Eastwick are all energetic, entertaining Hollywood products that raked in piles of money. But my favorite of the year’s hits practically plays like an art film today.
In a lot of ways, The Untouchables is mainstream Hollywood spectacle. It’s got big stars and shootouts, and it’s an adaptation of a popular novel and an old TV series. But The Untouchables is also a great example of director Brian De Palma’s morbidly ecstatic style at work. (To date, it’s De Palma’s second-highest grossing film, behind the first Mission: Impossible, another TV adaptation.) De Palma had a great team: a David Mamet script, an Ennio Morricone score, an Oscar-winning turn from a perfectly gruff Sean Connery. But the movie’s best moments are all De Palma; they seem to play out in some kind of hyper-violent dreamworld.
Next time: Barry Levinson’s road comedy Rain Man brings together Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise and gives several generations some funny ideas about how autism works.