Review: 3 Days with Dad (2019; written and directed by Larry Clarke)

There are many many things that Larry Clarke’s 3 Days with Dad does really well. The cast is incredible, from the large parts to the bit roles. The performances are beautiful. The ensemble is really worthy of the name: you believe these people are a family. The script is both hilarious and deep. Its small jumps around in time are extremely effective. Each character is fully drawn (even the bit parts get fleshed out).

But what 3 Days with Dad does like almost no other film I can think of is show so clearly (so much so that I was getting flashbacks) – the sheer chaos of what it’s like when a parent starts “failing,” when it’s clear that the end is drawing near, when medical decisions need to be made (often, under the gun), when every day brings another crisis, when a family’s entire life swirls around the death throes of the loved one whose time to go is now. Anyone who has been through it knows what it’s like. There are moments of sheer hilarity, because everyone’s nerves are so shattered. There are moments of howling anticipatory grief. You’re not ready. You’re not ready to say goodbye. But add to that the horror of watching a loved one – a parent, especially – suffer, endure excruciating pain, the indignities of the failing body … and suddenly you find yourself doing all of these things you never thought you would be able to do … or even imagined doing. The stress is intense. People crack up. People start laughing hysterically for no reason. People bicker. People sob. And then pull themselves together to try to listen to the update from the doctor, who uses big words nobody understands. For me, grief following death was easy compared to the year before, which was an unremitting living nightmare, for us certainly, but mostly for him. There were times watching 3 Days with Dad when tears literally POURED off my face, and then the next second I would burst into laughter at some wisecracked comment, or even just gasp in recognition of how TRUE it all was.

I’ll start off by saying that Larry is a friend of mine, and the film is filled with people I know (including a member of my family). Larry and his wife Fielding Edlow are amazing (I interviewed the two of them about Bitter Homes and Gardens, the web series written by Fielding.) Larry has a lengthy career in film, television, and theatre, but 3 Days with Dad is Larry’s first as a writer and director (he also stars). You may recognize him as one of the Detectives Fusco on Twin Peaks: The Return. (The other two Fuscos are also in 3 Days with Dad.)

David Koechner, Eric Edelstein, Larry Clarke

3 Days with Dad starts with the funeral of Bob Mills (Brian Dennehy), a problematic prickly patriarch, with 4 adult children, Zac (Eric Edelstein), Andy (Tom Arnold), Diane (Mo Gaffney), and Eddie (Larry Clarke). Diane’s husband Tim (Jon Gries) is so omnipresent he may as well be a 5th sibling. This is a close family, even with the political and religious differences (Andy has a rosary on hand at all times, whereas Eddie was never confirmed – a scandalous event that still gets radio play in the family). Bob has been married to Dawn (Lesley Ann Warren) for 35 years. As stepmother, she didn’t raise the kids, but she is woven into the texture of family life. Even the “kids'” eyerolls at one another about her quirks (her hot outfits and red lipstick, her concern-trolling Diane about her weight, her obsession with her dogs) feels like a well-worn piece of carpet. They aren’t surprised by this. They’re like, “Oh. That’s Dawn. Whatever.” These people all know each other really well. They don’t stand on ceremony with each other. The banter has some bite, but it’s not toxic bite. They have all been arguing about the same things for 40 years. Like, can everyone just get over the fact that Eddie didn’t receive the sacrament of confirmation? No? Well, okay then.

Eddie, the lead character, lives in Chicago and works as a doorman in a 5-star hotel. But, he’s defensive about his life, snapping for no reason at his dad, which is a major “tell” that he is not doing okay. He flies to his hometown when his dad is hospitalized, and everywhere he turns he runs into someone from high school. He can’t go visit his dad in the hospital without running into his high school sweetheart Susan (Julie Ann Emery), who seems weirdly intense in her “hey how’ve you been” conversation with him in the parking garage of the hospital. (This is how it is every time I go home. A quick trip to CVS leads to an encounter with the guy I asked to the Sadie Hawkins dance when I was 15. It makes you want to wear a disguise.) So Eddie, holed up with his family, dealing with the whirlwind of his father’s illness, is suddenly drawn back in time, to people who knew him when. This is not just a “literary device.” This is what happens sometimes when a parent is ill and/or dying. Death can be a Great Reckoning, a moment to take stock (whether you want to or not), where you are confronted with the You Now and the You Then and the You you Want To Be. Because if your parent dies now, you will be left with the feeling that you didn’t live up to their hopes for you, or you’ve let them down, or you want to make them proud, but now it’s too late. This may not be “true” – a wise friend could counsel you out of feeling this way – but it is REAL and 3 Days with Dad gets this.

Eddie gets wasted with his high school friends: Brick (Mike O’Malley), who is Susan’s brother and a quadriplegic from a surfing accident. Brick describes finding God when he was pulled from the water, but his tone is so deadpan you can’t tell if he’s putting Eddie on or serious. Then there’s Matt (Nate Shelkey), a stoner who wants Eddie to take his mind off things by hooking up with the perfectly named Velma (Amy Landecker), a wild woman who also went to high school with them. Eddie’s sudden fixation again on Susan and what she represented to him back in his youth, as well as staggering into the hospital still drunk from being out all night … all of this is a perfectly normal and yet totally wacko response to the cataclysmic event of his father’s decline. Nobody’s sleeping. Nobody’s eating right. Everyone’s nerves are on edge. Everyone is exhausted.

Larry’s script moves around fluidly. There are a couple of flashbacks to earlier times, a Fourth of July cookout where Bob makes MAGA-hat-wearing-type comments as the entire family screams at him to shut up, a confrontation between Bob and Eddie, showing the underlying tension in the relationship. But the main movements of the script take us from the aftermath – the funeral arrangements, the funeral – to the weeks leading up to Bob’s death, as his health fails. It all blends into one narrative, which, indeed, is how it feels in real life. It’s like it’s all one very very long day. This is a difficult thing to achieve in a script, but with 3 Days with Dad you always know where you are in time.

Bob is a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy. He’s a Vietnam vet, he worked hard all his life even though he wanted to be an artist. He loves his kids, he loves Eddie even though he doesn’t know what the hell Eddie is talking about half the time. You want your life to have meaning? Get a job in the civil service. Stop whining. Why are you drinking a beer at 2 in the afternoon? When I drink a beer at night, it’s because I’ve earned it. Bob is a tough guy, gruff, who is emotional but doesn’t show it. (When Andy says, in a tone of pride, at the funeral, “Dad didn’t tell us he loved us. He didn’t have to” – it made me want to cry. He may not have had to say “I love you”, but maybe it would have been nice for his kids to hear the words?)

This is one of Dennehy’s sweet spots as an actor, and he’s just wonderful here. Bob is not a monster, nor is he a saint. He’s a man, the sum of his experiences, just like you or I or Eddie or anyone else is the sum of theirs. Dennehy can break your heart too, like the moment where – before the oxygen mask is put on his face – he gasps with pained breath at his fractious kids, “Take care of Dawn.” It’s incredibly vulnerable work.

Bob adores Dawn, and she adores him, although she also seems to have a flirtation going on with a neighbor, whom she chats up when she walks her beloved dogs. (Dawn puts on red lipstick to walk the dogs.) Dawn takes care of Bob, managing his menu, cutting out sugar (she is extremely weight-and-health conscious), and scolding everyone else about their diets. When she orders sandwiches for the family, and hands Eddie a steak sandwich “with hummus and quinoa paste”, ordered from “a vegan deli”, the look on Eddie’s face made me laugh out loud.

The four siblings sit in the hospital cafeteria, or at Diane’s house, or in the funeral home, wherever, and argue, sometimes forcefully, about the decisions they need to make. It’s a grueling process. They are burying their father. For the first and only time. They have never done this before. They’re not prepared. Nobody is ready, nobody knows what to do. Bob has said to “pull the plug” after three days on life support. The kids want to honor that. Dawn is in denial, though. She’s determined to exhaust every option, to keep him on life support for a couple more weeks to get another pulmonary guy in to look at him. There’s a major power struggle. Right as things get extremely heated, she smears on red lipstick and races home to walk her dogs, leaving the kids staring at each other like, “Is she losing her mind, or …?”

In the planning stages for the funeral, every step of the way there’s some bump on the road, pulling the family into its orbit. The priest is going to mention a “prayer for the unborn” in his homily, and Eddie is pissed at the “politicizing” of Dad’s funeral. Andy and Zak argue back that Eddie is over-reacting, which becomes – yet again – an argument about Eddie not making his confirmation a bazillion years ago.

Larry manages these switch-backs in time and place with ease. You never wonder “where” you are in the story. I’m not quite sure how Larry pulled it off, but he did. Part of this is the strength of his ensemble. THEY all know where they are in the story at any given time. The entire VIBE changes once Bob is gone, and the arguments about the homily have an entirely different feel than the arguments about how terrible the hospital is. (It’s a running joke, the ineptness of the hospital. But it’s not really a joke at all. Trying to get proper care for your loved one, trying to get someone to get in here now, to GIVE A SHIT about bed sores … in a place where the staff is already overwhelmed … all of the adult children talk about “suing everyone” every other second. All of this has such a ring of truth.)

There are funny moments all along about having to deal with bureaucracies, organizations, businesses, while you are in a howling whirlwind of grief. How ABSURD things are: your life is changing forever, you’re sobbing, and these people are there making money off of it. I mean, that’s the way the world works, but when you’re IN it, everything is through the looking glass. When the family arrives at the funeral home to make arrangements for the service, they are greeted by a “staff” member (played by J.K. Simmons in a hilarious cameo), chomping on an apple, leaning down to their car window, confiding with them about how his brother gave him this job (“it’s a mid-life career change kind of thing”), and it’s all incredibly inappropriate. This is a grieving family. Nobody cares about your career!

Then there’s a mix-up with the crematorium which leads to an absolutely hysterical sequence – which I’m sure the family will HOWL about later – but in the MOMENT, it is an outrage. (A friend of mine had a similar experience with his mom’s death, when he had to deal with an incompetent funeral home. To say the funeral home was “insensitive” is to COMPLETELY understate what occurred. My friend went APESHIT on the blase funeral home employee, and rightly so … but later that night, he and his siblings laughed so hard they were falling off of their chairs. Such is death. It’s amazing we all make it through.)

They are adults, but even adults become small children again when their father – their strong gruff father who “didn’t need to tell them he loved them” – starts to become frail, can’t eat, can’t breathe on his own. It’s heart-rending. There’s one incredible scene when Bob suddenly has to “take a crap” and his children all help him to his feet to get to the bathroom. But everyone is in a panic. Bob is screaming, the kids are screaming, they’re moving him and his IV drip across the room and it’s MAYHEM. It’s funny but it’s also not. No one can prepare you for a moment like that. It’s unimaginable until it is upon you.

Lesley Ann Warren has been a favorite of mine for decades. Mitchell and I have discussed her often. She has always brought a unique energy to her roles: she is funny and sexually alert, she is intelligent, and she vanishes into the character. Imagine Victor Victoria without her. Impossible. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Academy Award for that. She’s one of those actresses it’s always good to see. She brings with her the affection accrued from a long career of doing good work. She has never stopped working. But this is the meatiest role she has had in a long long time. She does some really intricate character work, the stuff she’s so good at as an actress: Dawn’s outfits, sunglasses, nails, behavior, line readings: it’s all perfection. Dawn seems to have it all together but Dawn is weird, let’s face it. Warren makes Dawn real, and not a caricature. Warren’s work is so good here that when the facade falls – when even Dawn, with her bright smile and pink pants and long pink nails, has to admit that the time has come to say goodbye to Bob, that it’s time for Bob to “go” – it’s absolutely devastating and cathartic. Her swoon into grief has been such a long time coming it’s like the entire film takes in a heaving breath of air. It’s a phenomenal performance.

Larry had many balls to juggle, and this is a film with a big cast, multiple locations, and multiple intersecting timelines. As writer, as director, he keeps it all afloat, while at the same time giving a touching and funny performance. Cinematographer Christopher Gallo, who comes from mainly a documentary background, has a gift for catching behavior as it happens, the spontaneity of the moment, bringing us behavior that feels “caught” as opposed to staged out and planned. (All of it may very well have been planned, but the fact that it doesn’t feel planned is a testament to everyone involved.) Gallo’s style is unobtrusive and yet very sensitive. In the group scenes, you never lose the thread, even though everyone is talking at once. You always know where you are. The camera isn’t static. The camera feels where the moment is happening, and gravitates towards the center of it. When there’s a closeup, it really means something. And when a moment calls for stillness, Clarke and Gallo aren’t afraid of that either. (So many films are afraid of stillness.) All of the work done here is in service to the story and to the performances. There is nothing to distract.

My friend Alex called me on the night my dad died. It was a freezing January, and I stood out in the driveway, shivering, the bright stars in the wintry sky above me. His illness had been so harrowing it was a weird relief that his pain was over. But I didn’t know how I was going to feel, I didn’t know how I would make it through, what my life could POSSIBLY look like without this man in it! I am in tears writing this. I said to Alex at one point, “Well, you know about this … you’ve lost your parents …” and she interrupted me, firmly. “Listen to me. Okay? As far as I’m concerned, right now, your father is the only parent who has ever died. Nobody can tell you what to feel or how to feel it. Nobody can compare their experience to yours. Each of us must walk through this alone. I will be here for you. And I know that pain. But this is YOUR grief. It is the only time this has happened in your whole world, and the only time it WILL happen.”

In the whirlwind following his death, so many people said the craziest shit to me. “I was so upset when my grandfather died. I understand.” Why are you talking about YOU right now when it’s MY dad that just died? “He’s dancing with the angels now.” (If you knew my Dad, you would know how RIDICULOUS that image is.) “I remember crying for 3 weeks when I got divorced, so I really feel you.” You don’t really get how fucked up people are about death until you yearn for the smart soul who knows that “Sorry for your loss” is sometimes the best thing to say.

Alex’s words really stuck with me. I held onto them. She wasn’t saying that other people haven’t lost parents, of course. She was saying that right now … on the day he died … to ME – it was a singular loss, unique in the universe. Because HE was unique in the universe, as am I, and my family, and our various specific relationships. This is true for all of us. We are not replicants. One size does NOT fit all with grief.

Nobody can prepare you for what it will be like. You really have to have gone through it to get it.

3 Days with Dad “gets it.” Watching it was practically a healing experience.

Release date: September 13, 2019 (VOD/select theatres)

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8 Responses to Review: 3 Days with Dad (2019; written and directed by Larry Clarke)

  1. Kate Havard says:

    Even this review is one of the realest, most accurate things I’ve read about losing a parent that it made me tear up too. The movie must be amazing. Can’t wait to see it. Thx.

    • KH says:

      (Reminds me of the family we have about having to transport my mom’s ashes to a different location in a Trader Joe’s bag. Awful at the time…but she always did love Trader Joe’s….)

    • sheila says:

      Kate – it is unbelievably accurate!! It really cares about all those little details. I’ll keep people posted on release dates or streaming dates – it says February 6 on IMDB but I don’t know what that means!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. JesseSP says:

    Very interested in seeing this. Looking at its Facebook page, it appears to have originally been titled “Dying 101.” I will definitely keep an eye out for it.

    (FYI Sheila, I came to this link thanks to your newsletter. Thanks!)

    • sheila says:

      Jesse – Oh I’m glad the newsletter is working! Thanks for stopping by!

      I’ll update the post with any distribution information as it comes in. It’s really good.

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