It’s the most awful thing you’ll ever hear.
— J.P. Tannen (Jon Voight), Table For Five
I remember Table for Five. I’d forgotten the title, and the foreign locales, but J.P. Tannen’s shipboard attempts to parent his three kids are burned into my brain, thanks to a childhood of constant cable-surfing. And yet, watching this 1983 tearjerker anew is a jarring, surprising experience.
Now out on an extras-less DVD, Table for Five stars Jon Voight as onetime golf pro J.P. (the women he chats up on a flight don’t recognize his name). An absent divorced dad, he’s trying to shoehorn a whole lot of fun and paternal caring into a Mediterranean cruise with his three kids. Halfway through, events force him to shift from hapless and selfish to sad and bewildered. By turns self-important, earnest, and grandiose, he exemplifies the sensitive man of the early ’80s (think also of Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer). It’s a juicy, showcase role for Voight, and he helped bring it to the screen: his company financed the film, sparing no expense where locations were concerned, including Athens, the Sphinx, and the Pyramids. All this journeying, however, is only backdrop for a family’s suffering a near-unbearable rupture.
The kids are young Truman-Paul (Robby Kiger), preteen Tilde (Roxana Zal), and teenaged Trung (Son Hoang Bui), whom J.P. and then-wife Kathleen (Millie Perkins) adopted after the boy followed him from hole to hole at a Philippines golf tournament. The children live year-round with Kathleen and stepfather Mitchell (Richard Crenna) in one of those noisy, hectic, movie-perfect homes, complete with big, eager dog, and see their father only occasionally.
J.P. wants to change all that. He springs his vacation destination on Kathleen at the airport, assuring her he’s changed and wants to come back into his kids’ lives. If he believes what he’s saying, she doesn’t. Whisking the kids off to Egypt is typical, she says. “I can’t tell you how many things this reminds me off.” More to the point, she doesn’t want him getting the kids’ hopes up. “They love you the way they have you — vacations, phone calls on birthdays,” she says. “You’re a lovely man, James, but they’ve learned not to rely on you. You take them to the pyramids and let Mitchell take them to the dentist.”
It’s a vivid summation of the film’s central conflict. In every possible way, Mitchell is succeeding where J.P. has failed. He’s a talented attorney, a reliable husband, and a devoted dad. Cruising alone with the kids, J.P. stumbles straight out of the gate. Unaware of Truman’s issues (a learning disability and regular nightmares), he has to be clued in by Tilde, who behaves like a mini-version of her mother, watching J.P. like a hawk while he scans the crowd for hot women to chase while his kids are at play. (Dismissive of a blonde in tight pants, she warns her father that he’ll catch a yeast infection from her.)
On their first night on the ship, he runs off to the nightclub, to do what grownups do. The next morning, the kids’ chatter grates on him at the breakfast table. The problems escalate, until J.P. faces up once more to his inadequacies and suggests that they all scale their expectations back and treat each other as friends. “Let’s just forget the father stuff,” he says. “I don’t know how to deal with that.”
It’s a nice idea, but the four are already in rougher waters than they know. The kids will need a father, not a friend, to get through what lies ahead, and J.P. will need to grow up.