The song over the opening titles of Three Men and a Baby (“Boys will be boys, bad boys, bad boys, nothing but trouble”) hints that you’re about to watch a film about overgrown boys struggling to grow up and face responsibility. This couldn’t be more inaccurate.
Admittedly, the song hasn’t even finished before Ted Danson and Tom Selleck have charmed an impressive number of women back to the penthouse apartment they share with (sorry, Steve) the less successful, but just-as-confirmed bachelor, Steve Guttenberg.
But this is just the set up, the Pledge. Don’t let it fool you. Because in actual fact Three Men and a Baby is one of the most sensitive and affirming films about fatherhood you’ll ever see. It’s practically a homage to the capacity and capability of each and every man.
Let’s skip through the thin layer of plot (mistaken packages, gangsters, police) because, heck, the film does so itself in order to bring the titular men and the baby into the foreground. The fathers/baby relationship isn’t a backdrop for a plot, it is the plot.
The inspirational Turn arrives sometime after Peter (Selleck) and Michael (Guttenberg) have discovered Jack’s (Danson) baby daughter Mary outside their door. And it’s as surprising as the discovery that the film is directed by cultural polymath Leonard Nimoy.
In the first moments of Mary’s arrival in bonnet and basket, everything we could suspect is confirmed. The two men are furious with Jack’s easy-going attitude toward the baby and horrified at the prospect of having to take care of it on their own.
Michael has no idea why she’s crying and exhausts himself acting like a clown to try to get her to stop. Peter goes cross-eyed when faced with the sheer scale of baby stuff he needs to buy and the bewildering advice offered by the first woman he asks.
The idea of the situation being abnormal is rammed home by the many mothers with prams and toddlers in every credible frame. The helpful woman, though certainly helpful, does look to be enjoying Peter’s discomfort and lack of knowledge.
Then the two desperate men attempt to change Mary’s dirty nappy and jerry-rig a replacement with one six months too large, which immediately falls off, giving Mary the opportunity to wee onto the sofa Peter is holding her over.
But think about it. Neither man freaked out at the idea of changing Mary or refused to deal with the dirty nappy. Peter doesn’t lose his temper even though the sofa’s covered in piss, and a few moments later Michael’s cleaning the sofa. The stereotype is wavering.
It’s obvious that Peter is rich, and so just blindly buying a haul of baby stuff would have been a worry-free task. But he doesn’t just buy ‘stuff’. He’s been to several shops, picked out stacks of equipment for every possible need the baby might have, and then spends the time figuring out what it’s all for.
Look back and you see that, despite the initial complaining (and Peter closing the door on her for comic effect) Mary is the focus for both men from the very instant they bring her into the house. The sofa they change her on doesn’t matter, nor does the carpet under the dirty nappy. Her needs are already at the centre of their world.
Michael’s character might still require him to play the fool every now and then, but neither of the men struggle with the responsibilities of looking after a baby. They meet the challenge, they come through, and they get on with what’s next. Peter even risks arrest to put Mary’s welfare first. Mary isn’t their baby but they are already good fathers.
Michael sums up this positive attitude when Jack comes home. He and Peter drop Mary on Jack and leave him to it, their return to the bachelor lifestyle illustrated by the midnight game of pool they both immediately get stuck into. Peter has concerns, but Michael just replies, no, let’s let him figure it out for himself.
Later we see how Peter, Micheal and Jack fall in love with Mary, and the film handles this in a really touching way that never makes light of the relationship. The script, the directing, the acting, they all take fatherhood, whatever the definition, seriously.
But what really resonated with me was what Michael says. Not only is Jack on his own (unlike the two other men) he’s also portrayed as the least responsible, yet he still gets on with it and figures it all out for himself. There’s even greater weight to the positivity of this when it’s repeated by Jack’s mother. It’ll do you good, she tells him.
This isn’t because she wants him to suffer, or to go through the sleepless nights and worrying. It’s because she trusts him, she believes in him, she knows he can do it and she knows that all he needs to do is commit to figuring that out for himself, and he’ll be fine. He’ll be better than fine. He’ll be a real father. And he is.
There are other shining moments, too. Michael’s finest comes in the final reel, with Mary returned to her mother and the way to the airport. All trace of the clownish manboy is now gone, and he reminds the mother that Mary likes to sleep 20 minutes after she’s been fed.
He doesn’t say that Mary must sleep, or Mary always sleeps. He tells her that Mary likes to sleep. This is a world away from when he didn’t even know how to begin understanding why Mary wouldn’t stop crying. Now he doesn’t just understand her, he builds his own life around that understanding.
Then, in the taxi rushing to the airport they talk to the driver who seems to be about to tell them that things get worse. Kids are hard, he tells them, but immediately gushes about how every father’s heart must melt when treated to their child’s smile. These are fantastic examples for any parent, whatever gender.
The film transcends gender roles in a way that is amazing for any film, let alone a big-name Hollywood film that came out 25 years ago. And yet, maybe it’s not that amazing, given the era. Maybe we’ve just gone backwards a little since then.
The Prestige of this magic film is when Mary’s mother agrees to stay in New York. It’s cheesy but it proves that the men haven’t just lived a great anecdote or survived a brief episode. Their world has changed and they’re ecstatic about it. Each one has become more of a man, more of a person than they were at the start of the movie.
Three Men and a Baby has a message for every father, every mother, every man and every woman, and it’s not about ‘facing up’ or ‘growing up’ or any hackneyed overcoming of stereotype. It’s about trust, it’s about believing in your own capacity to do anything. And, of course, it’s about how each and every man has the capacity to be the perfect father.