On Golden Pond (1981)
Release Date: February 12th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Mark Rydell Actors: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman
rofessor Norman Thayer Jr. (Henry Fonda) and his wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) return to their infrequently used cabin on the lake, where the crooning loons seemingly welcome them back. Norman doesn’t possess the enthusiasm of his partner, however; Ethel recognizes the beauty in all the tiny things, the life just waking up in the forest, while Norman is pessimistic and preoccupied with impending death. “You’re old and I’m ancient,” he jokes, without enough sarcasm to conceal his distaste for being aware of how near he is to the end of his life.
Canoeing on the pond, playing a board game, and boating to the grocery store amuse Ethel, who finds enjoyment in every activity, no matter how mundane. She remains as cheery as possible, but Norman’s constant griping slowly and surely wears away at her positive demeanor. “You think it’s funny being old?” he snaps. Their vacation is about to change, though, as moderately estranged daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) is coming to visit for Norman’s 80th birthday, and she’s bringing her latest boyfriend, a dentist, along for the strained festivities.
“On Golden Pond” is predominantly an examination of two elderly people coming to terms with aging – one opting to cherish the exciting years ahead, the other dwelling on a far better past. Everything reminds Norman of death, from a fallen doll to withered trees to the medication he takes for heart palpitations. His failing memory is also quite frightening, especially for a man set on familiar routines. To complicate the situation, Chelsea’s friend Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) brings his 13-year-old boy Billy (Doug McKeon) with him, giving Norman an opportunity to put his curmudgeon disposition into overdrive. With his unwavering unfriendliness and judgmental attitude, the stage is set (the film is based on the Ernest Thompson play) for darkly comical, greatly uncomfortable conversations and interactions, akin to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (or the much later “August: Osage County”) but without the copious imbibing.
There’s a bit of a culture clash as well, as Billy copes with his temporary new environment, pushing back against the reservedly accommodating elders who plan to make the best of a disagreeable situation. Meanwhile, bitterness and regret consume Chelsea, who can’t forgive her father for the coarse manner in which he raised her. As the film progresses, the participants manage to grow ever more hospitable, even when Norman briefly relapses into his cantankerous old ways. Their actions tend to draw out many little truths about life and love, all with the help of Dave Grusin’s gentle yet conspicuous piano tunes. But despite the amusing lessons on forgiveness, mortality, generosity, seeking approval, and compromising, there’s a slowness to the picture that betrays its repetitive misadventures. Even when the more notable events occur, they have a smallness and a predictability to them that diminishes their significance. It’s sweet and funny but very simple, which considerably hurts its chances at long-lasting profoundness.
– Mike Massie