The switched-baby format has been dormant in film for some time now. One of cinema’s great living kid-wranglers, director Hirokazu Koreeda, brings the once popular genre to life in the overlong, occasionally poignant Like Father, Like Son.
As always, Koreeda is capable of subtle, tender moments, but the too-stark contrast between the victimized families oversimplifies the story. Masaharu Fukuyama plays an essentially stereotypical character: a cold, swaggering, success-chasing Tokyo architect. He’s pushing the boy he believes is his son hard, right at the beginning of the child’s scholastic care (age six). Meanwhile, down in southern Japan, the architect’s actual son is being raised by a much more easygoing dad, Yudai (Riri Furanki), the tattooed, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing proprietor of a funky hardware store.
Furanki’s presence proves the Howard Hawks principle that you ought to try to make a comedy out of your story. When you see the sympathy Koreeda has for this happy-go-lucky slob, you wonder why the director bothered opening the film with the workaholic in his blood-freezing modern apartment. Yudai has so much grit that he’s even openly looking forward to the settlement the hospital is going to lay on him for their mistake. Homer Simpson could not be earthier. But, naturally, Yudai is too perfect a character, with no arc to follow, and it’s the architect who needs to rescue his inner child.
There’s never been a switched-baby melodrama without third-act problems, and this lauded drama is no exception. There are times in the film when you’re certain that Koreeda is as good as Mike Leigh or the Dardenne brothers in dramatizing the banal thought that the human race’s refusal to acknowledge the familial ties among us worsens the world. This switched-at-birth situation takes on a sad plausibility in those instances, and you wonder what you’d do if it happened to you.