Character actor Larry Clarke strives to breathe fresh life into the clichés and conventions of family-reunion scenarios in “3 Days With Dad,” his first attempt at multitasking as director, screenwriter and star. As its time-twisting narrative proceeds apace, the movie makes more than a few awkward lurches between farcical exaggeration and sympathetic observation. Ultimately, however, this tonally untidy yet incrementally affecting dramedy scores a cumulative impact by credibly and astutely depicting eruptions, disruptions and reconciliations during the long goodbye to a dying paterfamilias.
Clarke gives himself most of the screen time, and does his best to earn it, as Eddie, an under-achieving fortysomething who is called away from his job as doorman at a Chicago hotel and returns to his Maryland hometown when he gets word that his ailing father, Bob (Brian Dennehy), has taken a turn for the worse. Eddie isn’t prepared for the trip, emotionally or financially. (He needs one of his brothers to actually pay for the plane ticket.) Early flashbacks reveal father and son haven’t always been on good terms — Bob calls Eddie out for lacking goals and gumption, and Eddie, though resentful, really can’t deny the accusations — so it comes as a surprise to Eddie, and everyone else in the family, when it’s revealed that Bob wants his errant offspring to deliver the eulogy at his funeral service.
This in turn triggers other flashbacks, as the narrative skips forward, backwards and sideways — not always smoothly, but hardly ever confusingly. One scene might be devoted to the family’s bedside vigil in the hospital as Bob, connected to the tubes and monitors of life-support systems, gradually fades away. The next scene might jump to the aftermath of Bob’s death — J.K. Simmons has an amusing but reality-based cameo as a socially maladroit crematorium employee.
Then we’re back to the death watch, or to a glimpse at an earlier, happier family gathering that is subtly undercut by a faint hint of Bob’s medical issues. And every so often, the movie follows Eddie away from the hospital as he enjoys reunions with a wisecracking quadriplegic buddy (Mike O’Malley), a sexy former high school classmate (Amy Landecker, cheerfully exuding her character’s unabashed carnality), and, most important, Susan (Julie Ann Emery of TV’s “Better Call Saul”), a woman from his past with whom he shares an unexpected connection.
“3 Days With Dad” abounds with depictions of family dynamics and behavioral details that likely will trigger shocks of recognition among many viewers. Eddie’s two brothers, Andy (Tom Arnold) and Zak (Eric Edelstein), are devout Catholics who scold him for his bad life choices, and his lack of religious fervor. Eddie in turn is incensed — along with Diane (Mo Gaffney), their sister — when his brothers try to slip pro-life proselytizing into the funeral oration. (This is one of those rare mainstream movies where religion is repeatedly acknowledged as playing a vital role in the lives of its characters. Well, some of its characters, anyway.)
Dawn (Lesley Ann Warren in an impressively fearless performance), the siblings’ stepmother, is deeply concerned about her husband’s condition, and determined to prolong his life beyond all realistic hope. (Never mind that Bob is suffering from, among other maladies, what one doctor bluntly describes as “end-of-life emphysema.”) But she’s also a self-centered drama queen who constantly complains about being more stressed than she can bear, and tends to her pet dogs or demands to be taken shopping when it all gets to be too much for her.
There’s also the teasing suggestion that Dawn might already be shopping around for her next husband even before they pull the plug on Bob. But Clarke refrains from confirming or confounding suspicions in this area, indicating that, unlike Andy and Zak, he doesn’t want to appear too judgmental. In a similar fashion, Clarke doesn’t shy away from including scenes that depict Bob as overbearing at best, racist at worst. But he also challenges us to think too unkindly of a man who, throughout most of the movie, is too frail and enfeebled to even go to the bathroom without help from his sons. That Bob is played by Brian Dennehy, an actor normally associated with bearish and boisterous roles, makes it all the more upsetting to watch his raging against the dying of the light.
Time and again during “3 Days With Dad,” Clarke details just how frustrating and humiliating your final days can be, especially if you’re an Alpha Male like Bob, even when you’re receiving the best medical care. (Of course, there’s some slight doubt that Bob actually is receiving that — but, here again, Clarke remains ambiguous.) Just often enough, though, Clarke counterbalances clinical detail and heart-wrenching grief with welcome comic relief and muted optimism. To his credit, he stops far short of resolving every conflict or even delivering just comeuppances. And in the end, despite the sporadic grinding of plot mechanics, his movie has the solid ring of truth.