Between “Boat Trip,” “Titanic,” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” Hollywood hasn’t really done any favors to the luxury cruise industry. Everybody knows that being stuck on a floating hotel with a few choice members of your family, a zillion overeager strangers, and one nasty food-borne stomach virus is basically the closest to hell a human can get without dying, but the movies have managed to make the experience look even worse than it seems. Remember what happened to those poor bastards in “Poseidon”? Their ship flipped upside down in the middle of a New Year’s party and they were forced to spend the rest of the night with Johnny Drama. And those folks got off easy compared to the passengers in “Deep Rising,” who were almost killed by terrorists before a crudely rendered CG kraken showed up to slaughter them in a different way.
But all of that is about to change with Lauren Miller Rogen’s “Like Father,” which — among other things — is a frighteningly convincing infomercial for the regal experience of a Royal Caribbean voyage. Even the most avowedly anti-cruise viewers might find themselves reconsidering the idea after watching this fleet confection, a movie that somehow makes cruises seem fun. Fraught with long-simmering resentments, crowded with overeager honeymooners, and maybe just a little too focused on competitive karaoke… but still fun. Even if “Like Father” is a bit too muted and elusive to whip up the same hysteria that followed “Set It Up” earlier this summer, it’s another example of Netflix delivering the kind of low-key charmer that traditional studios have left behind.
Things begin on a wobbly note, as Rogen — who proved her comedy bonafides by writing and starring in 2012’s “For a Good Time, Call…” — muddies some traditional rom-com material with hints of underlying darkness. Rachel, played by a raw and raucous Kristen Bell, is the kind of pathological workaholic that has kept this genre afloat for the better part of a century. We first meet her on her wedding day, when she’s so wrapped up in a business call that she misses her cue to walk down the aisle. That doesn’t sit well with her handsome, nondescript fiance, who claims that his bride-to-be is more devoted to her job than she is to him, and dramatically pulls the plug on the whole “happily ever after” of it all. Miller Rogen, in a show of tremendous restraint, plays the calamity for discomfort instead of cheap laughs. The cinematography is buoyant and hyper-bright, but the sunshine pep is undercut by a pervasive sense that everything might not be okay; that the man of Rachel’s dreams isn’t actually just sitting in the audience and waiting for her to notice.
Or maybe he is. Kind of. A man of Rachel’s dreams, anyway. His name is Harry Hamilton (an understated Kelsey Grammer, deliver what might be his first respectable film performance since “Toy Story 2”), and he’s Rachel’s long-estranged father. After missing the last 25 years of his daughter’s life, he’s reappeared just in time for her very worst day. The good news is that they have some unexpected time to catch up, as Rachel no longer has a honeymoon to be on. The bad news is, well, literally everything else in her life. But after a night of heavy drinking — much easier than heavy talking — the two of them wake up in the cruise suite that Rachel was supposed to be sharing with her almost-husband.
Sure, the premise is a little sweaty — and Miller Rogen’s script might have struck much deeper if Rachel had made a conscious decision to patch things up with her dad — but the movie’s charm starts to sink in as soon as that ridiculously large boat sets out to sea. Hungover as hell and desperate to get back home, Rachel isn’t in much of a hurry to make new friends, but she and her dad are roped into a makeshift clique (and briefly mistaken for lovers) before she can even dose herself with some hair of the dog. Miller Rogen’s supporting cast is stellar from top to bottom. “Broad City” mainstay Paul W. Downs is especially hilarious as a hyper-judgmental yenta, Mary Looram is perfect as one half of a smiling old couple, and Seth Rogen — the writer-director’s husband — strikes the right seriocomic balance in a small part as a lonely divorcé.
Rachel has found herself in an inherently ridiculous scenario, and each scene flirts with the heightened absurdity of a broad studio comedy, but Miller Rogen does a fine job of keeping things on an even keel. While the laughs come at a steady clip, the jokes are subtle, and often pushed to the periphery. “Like Father” keeps one foot on the ground at all times, and even the most exuberant set pieces — like the sequence where Rachel and Harry participate in a Newlyweds-style game show — are rooted in the reality of their strained dynamic. Everything is more fun than you’d think, but never more fun than you’d believe.
Bell and Grammer smartly underplay their scenes together, Miller Rogen’s careful direction steering them closer to awkwardness than to anger. It’s clear that she has to reorganize her life from stem to stern, just as it’s clear that he’s guarding a sadness that might help explain his absence, if not quite absolve him from it. There’s enough volatile possibility between these characters to reveal the clear potential for a genuine drama, but — for better or worse — Miller Rogen pulls back whenever things threaten to get a bit too heavy.
Likable at the expense of letting itself become something else, “Like Father” throws all manner of drama overboard in a bid to stay afloat, clinging to breezy montages like pieces of floating driftwood. What threatens to become a funny portrait of loneliness eventually softens into something much softer, complete with a climactic karaoke duet that makes the most of Bell and Grammer’s Broadway-minted talents.
But however afraid she is to let things get too serious, Miller Rogen is powerless to erase the emotional undertow that carries this story forward. All of the pent-up animosity her movie doesn’t know what to do with becomes its greatest asset. In a roundabout way, “Like Father” ends up challenging the value of resentment in a way that few movies can, or will, or want to. Sure, Rachel should be mad at Harry, but what good is that going to do her now? Is it ever too late to prioritize the people in your life? And what better way to work out your shit than to be trapped on a giant boat with a thousand bars and no cell service? Maybe cruises are good for something, after all.
“Like Father” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, August 3.