Initially, I thought there'd been a mistake. The characters had different names, and the movie's tone was lighter: mining family troubles for laughs. The opening shows Steve Martin as Gil Buckman, father of three, corralling them to the car following a baseball game. With souvenirs strung around his neck and a feisty tyke in tow, over a bouncy Randy Newman tune, Gil was comical. Such a scene would never appear in the TV series.
As the movie progressed, I saw similarities. The film characters were like rough sketches for the TV characters I know. Martin's Gil Buckman is a more neurotic version of Peter Krause's Adam Braverman, a hard-working family man who is the oldest son of Craig T. Nelson's Zeek Braverman and Bonnie Bedelia's Camille Braverman.
But while Gil's son, Kevin (Jasen Fisher) had a vague "emotional problem" that manifests as a mild panic attack when he loses his retainer, Adam's son Max (Max Burkholder) is diagnosed with Aspberger's syndrome, interfering with his ability to connect socially. The show has brought attention to this condition, as Adam and his wife, Kristina (Monica Potter) have sought assistance to cope with Max's needs.
The most drastic difference can be seen in the youngest Braverman sibling, named Larry in the movie and played by Tom Hulce. His small-screen counterpart is Crosby, played by Dax Shepard. Where Larry is a shiftless dreamer, who reappears with his biracial child only to beg money, Crosby is a dreamer learning to own up to responsibilities. Since the gambling-addict Larry, whose child is an afterthought to his daily plans, seems immune to learning life lessons, it's highly unlikely he would ever turn into Shepard's Crosby.
Like Larry, Crosby has a biracial son, Jabbar, played adorably by Tyree Brown. But unlike Larry, learning about his son has spurred Crosby's development: from a happy-go-lucky bachelor living on a houseboat to a music entrepreneur striving to be a good father with a solid love relationship.
The movie's most ridiculous characters are Gil's sister Patty (Ivyann Schwan) and her husband, Nathan Huffner (Rick Moranis). Led by Nathan, these parents coach their grade-school daughter endlessly, in hopes of producing a prodigy. Patty's counterpart, Julia (Erika Christensen), and her husband, Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger), are more relaxed about child rearing. Julia is a corporate lawyer while Joel stays home with their daughter. Lately, their story has circled around their efforts to adopt a second child.
The final sibling is perhaps the least changed. The movie's Helen Buckman (Dianne Wiest) is a single mom of two troubled teenagers: the withdrawn Garry (Joaquin Phoenix) and sexually precocious Julie (Martha Plimpton). Estranged from their dentist father, Helen struggles to resurrect her love life. The TV character, Sarah (Lauren Graham), is also a single mother of two, but her ex- is an alcoholic musician. Like Helen, Sarah has been struggling to find herself.
Unlike the first TV adaption -- a 1990 comedy series starring Ed Begley Jr. that lasted just 12 episodes -- the current series has wisely departed from the movie. By approaching parenting issues within a more complex, dramatic framework, the current series speaks to parents at all stages.