The primal conflicts of America in the 1980's were like this: Maverick vs. The Rules (Top Gun starring Tom Cruise), Rich Kid vs. Rich Parents (Risky Business starring Tom Cruise), Hard work vs. Scams (Cocktail starring Tom Cruise), and of course the most primal—and least remembered (maybe because Tom Cruise never covered it)—Baby vs. Single Men.
Baby vs. Single Men is the quintessential conflict of this time period, driving at the heart of America’s anxieties around wealth, gender, and cocaine.
I decided recently, out of boredom, to delve back into the cinematic expressions of this central '80s conflict.
Of course you start with Three Men and a Baby: The story of three saints of latter-day Reaganomics (Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg) getting their comeuppance from a good old-fashioned baby on a doorstep. Rewatching, I realized a few things that kept this movie relevant:
— This little snapshot of 1987 dudes and their attitudes toward women and female babies feels particularly relevant in the #MeToo era. The cheeky, unchecked sexism on display here is like a fence post from which to measure progress. Hell, just calling it sexism is progress. Back then, they called it “womanizing.” And in the end, these men actually get better. Which may be unrealistic, but it’s touching.
— The eye candy. You’ve got two hunks in their prime plus some guy named Steve Guttenberg who has nice eyes I guess.
— Tom Selleck’s outfits. His clothes steal every single scene. Tom legitimately looks like a fashion guru from 2019. If pleats were currency, get this guy to a bank before he gets robbed.
— If you thought the ending of Barny’s story in How I Met Your Mother was touching and original, it’s high time you learn they were just ripping off a 1987 Ted Danson.
— There’s this fun rumor that there’s a ghost in the background of one of the shots. Of course, it’s obviously just a cardboard cutout of Ted Danson in a top hat, but it’s still haunting.
To complete the deep dive into the trope of Baby vs. Single Men, you must take a dip into Three Men and a Baby’s own personal upside down, Baby’s Day Out. It's the story of a chosen boy of latter-day Reaganomics giving three poor crooks their comeuppance in the form of extreme genital torture. It’s the revenge that Three Men’s baby never got. It too, has much to offer on a rewatch:
— Slapstick. If Kevin McCallister of Home Alone grows up to be Jigsaw the villain from Saw (as the popular fan theory goes), then the baby of Baby’s Day Out grows up to be Pol Pot (some time travel required). This kid lights a man’s testicles on fire and giggles with glee as another man stomps out the fire.
— There’s only one fat-shamey moment, which is pretty good for a '90s movie. Also, the fat woman gets sweet, violent revenge.
— Biting social commentary. People are too busy, bustling through the city, buying things, watching the news, and endlessly consuming so they can’t even be bothered to look down and notice that an unaccompanied baby is crawling through the mall, across the street, into a construction zone, into a woman’s bag (she doesn’t even notice her bag got heavier). The social comment: nobody looks down anymore? Remember in the '90s how people only looked straight ahead?
— Donna from Twin Peaks is in it. If you’re a Twin Peaker, I understand this is enough to get you to watch the movie.
— Art. The conflict of Baby vs. Single Men has never been more fully explored than in this film. The baby is a source of comfort, love, and affirmation, but these men only try to extract wealth from it. For this, they are punished in a sequence of epic cosmic coincidences, and never do they stop trying. They endure a sort of Sisyphean hell until they are at last rendered sterile. Now that’s art.
So you may be wondering still: Why burn three and a half hours on late '80s to early '90s film (of course besides the exquisite pleasure of a perfect movie pairing) right now? Because the target audience for Three Men was adults, aged 25–45. And the target audience for Baby’s Day: children whose parents were 25–45. That age range happens to fit comfortably around the average age of U.S. Representatives (now 57, then 27) and Senators (now 61, then 31). These movies—and the conflicts in them—were made to speak to these men who currently run this country, these men who find nothing funnier than a man trying to take care of a baby, these men who still don’t support paid family leave because the mom should take care of it and the man should take care of business.
Sorry. There had to be a political motive.
Correction: Tom Cruise did kind of cover this in Rain Man, the story of a hotshot '80s winner trying to extract wealth from a child-like dependent.