Three Men and Tom Selleck’s Moustache

I told the Midnite Romero Society that I would write a series of essays about Aubrey Plaza’s many indie films, because at the time he asked, I had been looking on Netflix for something to sate some of the loneliness which many of us have become acquainted with during the pandemic. And while I might write those essays in the future, I think that for the time being, the movies I’m starting with (as I get back into the habit of watching any movie from start to finish) are the nostalgia/fantasy self-care self-indulgent flicks which make the hellscape we live in somewhat more bearable.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about movies of the same calibre as 1987 Leonard Nimoy (!) film “Three Men and a Baby,” starring Tom Selleck, Tom Selleck’s moustache, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson—and its 1990 sequel, the even more wish-fulfilment-y “Three Men and a Little Lady.” There are several movies which came out during the late 80s through 90s which explore family dynamics and structures (including and especially the unconventional); that particular period of media production sees film and television which appears (at least on a surface level) to be reaching towards a more genuine effort of reflecting the actual diversity of lived American experiences. The exploration of these unusual family structures occurs often in media that borders the line of family-friendly entertainment features. (I say borderline because there is, surprisingly, a lot more sex in these movies than I remember, and certainly more than what we see in today’s more violence-saturated mixed-generation movies–and also because I definitely watched a lot of movies that I probably wasn’t actually ready for as a kid primarily because there were children characters in those movies.)

“Three Men and a Baby” and its sequel fit into this quasi-family friendly limbo. There is a baby, and the primary crux of the film involves these hopeless guys who have no business being around any babies learning—like many new parents—that actually, dads can take care of babies, too, and that maybe parenthood isn’t such a bad gig after all.

Oh, there’s also the drug plot.

I’ll admit, I forgot about the drug trafficking subplot when I no longer had any reason to think about this movie, and chances are, if you mention it to anyone who likewise has no recollection of the actual plot of this movie, they will ask you about your own drugs. But this is the driving force of tension in “Three Men and a Baby;” not that mom Sylvia (Nancy Travis) has left the baby, Mary, on their doorstep, but that Peter (Selleck) and Michael (Guttenberg) draw significant confusion between the delivery of the baby and the delivery of a heroin package, the involvement of the police, and the subsequent threat and second confrontation with the drug dealers. It is likely that media can tell us more about ourselves, sometimes, than about anything else, so the fact that I forgot about the actual driving plot of the film–though not the situation of it–might suggest that as a kid I was really just in it for “Ha ha funny men can’t take care of babies” aspect. (I can’t wait for a similar revelation when I finally bring myself to rewatch “Look Who’s Talking,” a movie whose VHS cassette was worn out from repeated rewatch in my house.)

A quick synopsis: Peter, an architect, Michael, a cartoonist, and Jack (Danson), an actor, live together. They sleep with a lot of women. They’re more or less successful in their fields, but they haven’t settled down yet. (Their roommate situation is actually an early prediction of what millennials had to look forward to.) Before Jack takes off to film on location, he says “yes” to a director friend who asks to have a package delivered at the apartment. The next morning Jack has already left. Getting home from his jog, Peter finds a baby from one of Jack’s previous one-night-stands in the vestibule of the apartment. Hijinks ensue as Peter and Michael learn how to take care of Mary, and the men come to see her as a genuine member of their own microfamily, realizing that not only do they like being parents, but that they also ultimately don’t want to go back to how things were before without her. They’ve even got an airport scene at the end of the movie.

That Mural, That Moustache

While there are plenty of negative takes which could be had against the movie, including that the men are representative of a chauvinist culture which rewards men specifically for acting on their id-impulses (Peter tells Rebecca, his girlfriend in the first movie, that he’s fine with sentiment “as long as it’s disguised as sex”), it does lend itself better to a more charitable reflection on rewatch for a few reasons. For one, the men really are hopeless when it comes to childcare, and it’s not because they’re men. There are a few other instances where it’s clear that other men in the film’s universe, including the narcotics detective Sergeant Melkowitz and the taxi driver getting the men to the airport at the end of the movie, are actually capable of taking care of kids (and like them, too).The problem is very much with these particular men: despite being employed and having a nice apartment, they’re still “kids” themselves, never having needed to grow up. In addition to the actual set pieces, including the pinball machine and pool table, messes of empty Domino’s pizza boxes, and the giant mural which is the focal point of the intro montage where numerous women come and leave the apartment, the characters themselves behave in ways which suggest immaturity. Michael is unable to make it with women because he’s busy solving their relationship problems—with the help of a puppet version of his comic strip cat. Peter’s birthday cake at the start of the movie features a She-Ra action figure dangling from construction bars. And while we don’t see Jack that much during “Three Men and a Baby,” we know based on his brief phone call from location that he’s just as immature as the other two. The pleasure of the film comes in watching these specific manchildren grow up enough that they can take care of a child, but not so much that they forget what it’s like to be childish themselves, and Nimoy’s film doesn’t suggest that all men are this incompetent, even if these ones call on women they know to help them, from romantic partners to administrative assistants to their own mothers and storeclerks. Rebecca laughs at Peter when he makes the assumption that she would know: many of us, even with it all together, have no idea what to do with a baby.

Another positive takeaway, the first film isn’t concerned with punishing anyone for their behavior—we don’t even see punishment against the drug dealers. This might be obvious in the case of the men (they manage to not get in trouble for the heroin, they grow, they have help in figuring out how to be parents—even Jack), but it’s important to take a look at how the movie ends with Sylvia. While there’s some animosity when she comes back to pick up Mary, that comes from a place of not wanting to lose the baby, not necessarily because she doesn’t “deserve” to have her child back. It remains a fact that it’s very difficult to be a single mother, and motherhood remains heavily criticized in American culture and media: there’s no right way to be a mom, but there is, apparently, a lot of wrong ways. Women who give up their children for any reason are often unfairly villainized by media and society at large. The men are, understandably, upset when Sylvia comes back and announces her plan to bring Mary home to London with her—but their overriding need to care for Mary themselves prompts them to share what they’ve learned about child raising and Mary’s own peculiarities. They pack her stuff, they tell Sylvia what she needs to know. There’s sympathy and loss in their actions: they know how hard it is, because that’s their baby.

The suggestion that they coparent with cohabitation despite (at least at the end of “Three Men and a Baby”) no romantic connection between Sylvia and the men for the purpose of being able to care most effectively for Mary is a radical idea. It’s difficult to imagine this happening in real life, at least today, because even without animosity, we might suppose some degree of awkwardness would exist. But the coparenting model—especially with a built in family network who, with all their quirks, are still able to function in a healthy way is kind of an ideal situation. We can put aside any of our conflicting behaviors because ultimately, we all love and want to care for this child. You love to see it: the narrative doesn’t want to punish Sylvia for being unable to take care of her baby alone, but gives her a way at the end to have her kid, her career, and a socio-emotional-financial support network. The men get to keep being parents.

This does of course lead almost directly into the sequel, which is a family dramedy romcom. There are different considerations to make about the sequel because of its adherence to certain genre conventions, and because it’s about something totally different anyway, so we can dig deeper into the characters in this different context.

Things appear to be going well in the unconventional family; Peter’s offer to build a room for Mary and Sylvia at the end of “Three Men and a Baby” leads to a new apartment and a new mural painted during the opening montage. The opening montage shows Mary growing into a precocious child, present with all four of her parent figures. The original ensemble cast returns, and we see a happy—if unusual—home life. The assessment of the family structure of weird or strange comes from without: Mary is being considered for placement at an elite preschool, which opens up both parents and child to criticism from outside their home. Not only are the adults subject to questioning about the at-home dynamics from the school admissions board, but even Mary faces the same peer-to-peer evaluation of her parents from other students, who claim that while it might be normal to have more than one dad, it’s not normal to have more than one dad at the same time. While Mary’s concerns are ultimately abated by Jack, who offers reassurance about Mary’s place in their family, Sylvia lacks that same comfort, and her own awareness of her role as an unconventional mother is made even more uncomfortable when her own visits and presses upon her the importance that she get married so that Mary can have a more “normal” life. “Three Men and a Little Lady” becomes a marriage plot.

While he’s been acting as defacto patriarch, Peter has also been having the small issue of falling in love with Sylvia. The attraction is complicated for him because of a few factors: there’s still, to him, a sense that Sylvia is meant to end up with Jack since he’s Mary’s biological dad, and I would argue, there’s extreme reluctance towards change in his character. Peter is the kind of person—even in the first movie—who plays it pretty safe. He’s also jealous and more than a little selfish, qualities he shows at the beginning of “Three Men and a Baby” when he has two successive interactions: when a hot blonde asks him if he and Rebecca are together, he keeps himself available, but when a possible competitor for Rebecca’s attention asks, he’s clear that they’ve been tighter than ever, together for five years. We should call out this kind of behavior and acknowledge that even if you’re played by Tom Selleck, you can’t have it both ways. That being said, usually his behavior comes off as more endearing than not. In “Three Men and a Little Lady,” he comes across as cautious and concerned with protecting what he holds close: Mary, his family, Sylvia, and his own heart, which, it’s revealed, has been broken before during a rushed 24-hour marriage which only Jack knows about.

Miscommunication and a lack of communication between the romantic leads becomes the primary source of conflict between Peter and Sylvia, with the same kind of tension an audience might expect of any other romcom narrative.

Sylvia is a proxy for female audience members (or anyone else who wants to makeout with Tom Selleck). This is not a bad thing, but knowing it makes it easier to enjoy the already enjoyable film, especially when remembering that the whole movie is predicated on fantasy wish fulfillment. Sylvia becomes engaged to her director, Edward (Christopher Cazanove), when there are no other candidates, tired of waiting—even though Peter is literally right there. No, it doesn’t make sense: she’s super into Peter (and tells her mother she wants him to ask her), and she doesn’t have exactly the same set of hang-ups that he does, but she is operating on a set of rules which require men to be the ones asking women and not the other way around (although, like Morrissey sings, “If there’s something you’d like to try / ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?”). She, like Peter, is still doing what she thinks is best for her daughter, even though it proves to be misguided, because her actions are being influenced by people who don’t have Mary’s best interests at heart.

Of course, the fact that Edward doesn’t really hold a candle to any of Peter’s most attractive qualities makes it easier to root for Peter and Sylvia’s relationship as triumphant in the end. Peter has spent time being an actual father for Mary, and from dialogue with the other characters throughout the series—including with Sylvia herself—he’s the most reliable of the three men. He likes spending time with Mary, while Edward is conspiring to send her to boarding school. Jack tells him, when trying to get him to understand that his feelings for Sylvia are mutual, that he’s “the glue” holding their unconventional family together; Peter is “Papa Bear.” There’s also the very real fact that, in addition to being the kind of dad many of us hope our future kids get to have, he’s played by Tom Fucking Selleck. Sylvia can have, at the end of the day, the whole package: he’s not just situationally attractive, but he even has the right amount of jealousness to make it productive, and to put it into the right balance where he’s a man acting in the interest of his family. A woman doesn’t necessarily want to have to wait for a man to get it together, especially when being pressured towards a more conventional lifestyle by her mother, but sometimes what you want and what you need to happen to be the same thing, and they might also be much closer than you think.

As in “Three Men and a Baby,” “Three Men and a Little Lady” lacks the kind of vitriol we might be more accustomed to in other film franchises, existing in a parallel universe where people are capable of having healthy relationships under unusual contexts. The film is an affirmation of family, as the only targets for ire are Edward and even, to an extent, Sylvia’s mother—who, unlike Edward, is not acting maliciously as much as she’s acting from a place of ignorance. Peter’s concern with Sylvia and Jack’s past doesn’t lead him to act out against his friend—but to act with an abundance of caution, afraid of getting in the way of a relationship which might exist between them. Likewise, Jack and Michael see it as their duty to stall Sylvia’s unhappy union with Edward so that they can help: a) Peter, b) Mary, and c) Sylvia herself reach for the kind of relationship built on care and love for each other. The fantasy is to have someone who will support you and what you care about, because those cares often are shared—and given the whole of America’s dreamboat fantasies with Mr. Magnum P.I. himself, keeping Tom Selleck in the leading romantic role while allowing Ted Danson to play a comedic Jack, and Steve Guttenberg to act as the straight man to balance out the other two of the ensemble makes sense.

Or, perhaps in the same way I personally find the “haha funny men take care of baby” element the most compelling part of the first movie and that that might say something about me, so too might my investment in the marriage plot of the second installment. Maybe we all just want a hot man who’s good with kids to come sweep us off our feet and take care of us (and any hypothetical offspring). Or maybe that’s just me. The overall joy and love in these films makes them good and rewatchable today, when we’re being constantly bombarded with more and more terrible loss. This is not a call to be less engaged, as we can and should stay so, but when we need a break, these movies are going to still be here, like a booster shot before we have to get back into the real world.

“Three Men and a Baby” (1987) and “Three Men and a Little Lady” (1990) are currently streaming on Disney+.

Jillian Boger

Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. She sometimes appears on the horror movie podcast “The Howling Hour.” Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated “wild lawns.”