At last year's Cannes Film Festival, Steven Spielberg served as jury president, and the second the lights came up after the first competition screening of the Japanese picture "Like Father, Like Son," the cynical chatter began. This is Spielberg's cup of tea all the way. A carefully diagrammed heartwarmer about babies switched at birth and the parents who learn the truth of the matter years later.
The top prize at Cannes ultimately went to "Blue Is the Warmest Color" with the runner-up Grand Prix award going to "Inside Llewyn Davis." "Like Father, Like Son" made do with third place, the jury prize. This seemed about right. Away from the glare and the blur of the festival circuit, however, it's easier to appreciate the cool elegance of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-Eda's film.
In Tokyo, workaholic architect Ryoto and his smiling, frustrated wife Midori live in a fastidiously maintained high-rise with their six-year-old boy, Keita. Ten minutes into the story, the hospital calls with news of a long-ago mix-up. The couple was given the wrong infant. Their birth son has been living outside Tokyo in a happily discombobulated family headed by a childlike appliance shopkeeper and his wife. Kore-eda brings these two families together, uneasily, as they explore their legal and emotional and (literally) life-changing options regarding their children.
The script's diagrammatic quality is established early on when Ryoto, played by Masaharu Fukuyama, is given a few quick, blunt lines of dialogue delineating his character's aloof qualities. "These days, kindness is a fault...we can't both spoil him," he tells his wife, played with stealthy resolve by Machiko Ono. A great film on this subject would've been driven by characters inside an improbable situation; "Like Father, Like Son," which is good, not great, is situationally driven even though the acting's shrewd throughout.
Yoko Maki and Lily Franky play the country couple, easygoing and earthy, who regard their Tokyo counterparts with a mixture of skepticism and wonder. When the film takes up its simple central question — to switch or not to switch? — it's hard not to put oneself in the position of any one of the four leads. This is Ryota's story primarily, however, and it is his year-long awakening that guides the picture.
Many are profoundly moved by it. Others find "Like Father, Like Son" a little schematic, or a lot. A second viewing made me appreciate its craft and the rightness of many of the details, from the Glenn Gould "Goldberg Variations" on the soundtrack on down. As for those at Cannes who thought it was right up Spielberg's alley, they were right after all: DreamWorks is developing an English-language remake. Kore-eda said last year after the announcement: "I'm looking forward to working with Steven Spielberg, for whom I have great admiration."
"Like Father, Like Son" - 3 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:57; in Japanese with English subtitles
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre