MOVIE screens aren't exactly swarming with single dads this season, but their visibility takes a major leap in two new pictures about the challenges faced by fathers raising kids in one-parent households.
Both are comedies that care more about cuddly laughs than insights, and one hopes more serious looks at the subject will emerge from movie studios, given the urgent social and moral issues connected with family life today.
This said, it's good to see parenting at the center of lively new pictures that reach out to large international audiences. And it's good to see men sharing in the attention single moms have received in more thoughtful pictures like "Waiting to Exhale" and "Gas, Food Lodging" - although there's still plenty of room for further exploration of their challenges, too.
The title characters of Jack & Sarah are a young English attorney and his new baby daughter. His expectations of happy, easy fatherhood are shattered with his wife's unexpected death, leaving him in a state of shock so severe he can barely function, much less take over the task of rearing his child.
But paternal instincts run deep, and before long he's cheerfully on the job, making do with good-natured improvisations - a stocking for a cap, an envelope for a blanket - when experience and equipment run short. All that's missing is someone to take over when he's at the office, and while some of his relatives are eager to help, he's afraid they'd get on his frazzled nerves.
The solution turns out to be Amy, an American baby sitter who's even newer at the nanny trade than Jack is at fatherhood. Together they tackle Sarah's daily care, fighting many domestic battles but always managing to salvage their partnership. Complicating the situation are Jack's mother - a notorious fussbudget - and a homeless gentleman named William, who becomes a sort of butler for the otherwise modest household. Complicating it even more is an attractive lawyer named Anna, who works in Jack's office and could throw a glitch into his deepening relationship with Amy.
What's best about "Jack & Sarah" is Sarah herself, an adorable tot who steals the movie away from the grownups every chance she gets. What's second-best is the energetic acting of the adult contingent, led by Richard E. Grant as Jack and Samantha Mathis as Amy, who moves far from her action role in "Broken Arrow," where she helps Christian Slater save the world from nuclear catastrophe.
Also impressive are the stellar supporting players, including Judi Dench as Jack's mom and Ian McKellan as William, his unlikely servant. Eileen Atkins and Imogen Stubbs round out the unusually solid cast. The comedy was directed by newcomer Tim Sullivan.
Little Indian, Big City is coming to theaters courtesy of the Walt Disney studio, but it's actually a French picture, dubbed into English for added appeal to the American youth market.
It's even more laugh-oriented than "Jack & Sarah," full of silly gags and spiced with action sequences. But it still finds time to affirm old-fashioned values like the importance of family and friendship, and it should do well with comedy fans who don't mind dialogue that doesn't quite match the mouths it's coming from.
Thierry Lhermitte, a popular French star, plays a Paris businessman who's so single-minded about work that his wife has picked up and left him, migrating to a less materialistic life in the Venezuelan rain forest. Now he wants a divorce so he can marry his air-headed new girlfriend. To get the process going, he flies south for a meeting with his spouse - who introduces him to a son he never knew he had.
Soon he's back in Paris and caring for the boy himself, doing his best to keep him from hunting local pigeons, catching fish in a neighbor's aquarium, and scaling the Eiffel Tower just for fun. All of which the kid does anyway, driving dad and other Parisians crazy. The ending is predictable: Father learns from son, elevating his values, and reuniting with the wife he should have treasured from the beginning.
Already a hit in its native France, the picture was directed by Herve Palud, who keeps the action colorful even when it's not credible. Miou Miou and Arielle Dombasle bring their usual professionalism to the wife and girlfriend roles, and young Ludwig Briand is perfect as the Indian of the title. Paris and Canaima, Venezuela, look terrific.
* "Jack & Sarah" is rated R, reflecting vulgar language and sexual situations. "Little Indian, Big City" is rated PG, for vulgar language and a few violent moments, some with animals.