Video Vault celebrates Father’s Day by honoring one of cinema’s most patient and understanding fathers, Ben Healy, of the 1990 comedy classic (well, classic to me!) Problem Child. Starring John Ritter, Michael Oliver, Amy Yasbeck, Michael Richards, Jack Warden, and Gilbert Gottfried, this flick opened to mostly negative reviews and inexplicably has a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. It holds somewhat of a cult standing these days. I guess it takes a certain type of person to appreciate the constant barrage of mean-spirited, over-the-top sight gags and one-liner insults. This was the feature directorial debut of character actor Dennis Dugan, who has since gone on to direct such “masterworks” as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grown Ups, and Jack and Jill. I wonder how much he sold his soul to Adam Sandler for?
Problem Child is a story about two guys trapped in a world of assholes. Junior (Michael Oliver) is a brilliant 7-year-old troublemaker who has been passed from one unloving caretaker to another. Ben Healy (John Ritter) is a kindly wannabe dad who is stuck in a middle management position at his father’s (Jack Warden) business and is mar ried to a barren, gold-digging hoe, Flo (Amy Yasbeck), who is desperate for a child so she can join the elite social group known as parents. When a scummy adoption agent (Gilbert Gottfried) deceives the Healys in to taking Junior, their lives are changed forever!! Basically, Junior creates harm and destruction everywhere he goes while insulting his victims via voice-over and becoming pen pals with Illinois’s baddest serial killer, Martin Beck (Michael Richards). Ben attempts to deal with Junior in an understanding way like a good dad should, he even gives him a dried up prune (that resembles Franklin Roosevelt) to symbolize their bond. When Junior scores a leg home run at a little league game by beating each baseman with the bat, its Ben’s last straw and he goes in to an Exorcist/Apocalypse Now psychosis. Beck escapes prison and heads out to find the only man more hardcore than himself, Junior. Upon finding out that Junior is just a kid, Beck kidnaps Junior and Flo to hold them for ransom (after having sex with Flo, of course). At first Ben is ecstatic to be rid of them, but then he realizes that he is the only person that Junior has ever actually liked because of the love he showed him. In a climatic final showdown at a circus, Ben takes a bullet from Beck, but the dried up prune catches it. Flo ends up in a suitcase. Junior apologizes and declares his love for his new dad, they are happy. To quote Wikipedia: “The film ends with Flo in the truck looking out from the suitcase, only to be met by the rump of a pig as it defecates, and then the credits roll with the movie’s theme song.”
Normally a plot about a kid constantly wreaking havoc would not appeal to me, but the gags are so well set-up and over-the-top that it ends up being 81 minutes of blissfully inspired wackiness. Plus all the other characters are such terrible people that the audience is always on Junior’s side, which makes every punchline incredibly satisfying. Michael Oliver exudes classic comedian essence and the lines he gets to deliver are every bit as funny as the mayhem he causes. John Ritter is the quintessential straight man and dad. I’m surprised to say it, but Gilbert Gottfried’s connivery mixed with desperation is actually really funny as well. For a man who’s movies have become the jokes, Dennis Dugan almost had potential as a comedy auteur…but I actually think it is the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that is most responsible for Problem Child‘s success.
I wish I had more to say about this movie, but it is really quite simple and I don’t want to give away any more of the jokes. There is a really funny kid that gets to say a lot of really funny things while causing clever mischief full of cartoonish violence. It is wacky, way over-the-top, extremely politically incorrect, and a joy to watch. If anyone finds a VHS copy of Problem Child 2 please let me know! I’ve been looking for it for ages.