Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Problems of Problem Child

by Adam Riske and Erich Asperschlager
Here’s a nice piece of shit!

Adam: Ok, first off, I'm sorry for making you watch Problem Child. I can't believe I used to like this when I was 8 years old. Did you see it when it was initially released or was this your first viewing?

Erich: Apology accepted. ...NOT! Sorry, just getting into the early '90s spirit. I remember seeing commercials for Problem Child when it came out but I was almost 12 so it wasn't a movie I was clamoring to see. This was my first viewing—and it's all your fault. I can see why a movie like this would appeal to an 8 year old. What made you think it was worth revisiting for a column?

Adam: A recent viewing of Fuller House made me think "Wow, comedy is a lot different than it was 20 years ago" and somehow that led me to remembering Problem Child and I was curious what it would be like to watch in 2016. It's kind of amazing to me that this movie was such a box office success. It was the 21st highest grossing movie of 1990, making over $50M at the box office. It opened at #3.

Erich: From what I read on a certain wiki-related pedia site, you weren't the only one shocked by the movie's success. The writers and filmmakers were convinced it was going to flop, in large part because the studio forced a ton of rewrites and changes. The film was originally meant to be a dark comedy for adults, but ended up being a bland family film for nobody. That it was so successful is shocking to me, too.

Adam: It's kind of shocking to learn that this was the first screenplay from the writing team that would later go on to make Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt. You can totally tell that Problem Child got tinkered with a lot because its last act is really, really dark for a children's movie.

Erich: But as you said, this was the Full House decade. Funny movies and TV were being made, but audiences seemed primed to latch onto the dumbest stuff. Kurt Cobain's stand-up comedy would, of course, change all that.
Adam: This movie is so bad that I believe if it opened in this day and age it would go straight to video. Just about everything about it is a calamity. Did you dislike it as much as I did? Or did you find any redeeming qualities about Problem Child?

Erich: I don't think the movie is a complete waste. It's inexplicably full of recognizable faces. Gilbert Gottfried isn't my cup of nails on a chalkboard but he's here at his Gottfriedest. Michael Richards is pretty believable as a serial killer. I wish they used him more. The best thing about the movie, though, is John Ritter. For the first half (and final eighth) of the movie, his wide-eyed passion for family togetherness is infectious in a way Bob Saget could only dream about. It's actually painful watching everyone in his life actively working against him. There are good casting choices and performances in this awful awful movie.

Adam: When I mentioned that "just about" none of the movie works, I was saving an ounce of praise for John Ritter's performance. I miss John Ritter. He's so earnest and game for the material in this movie and the amount of goodwill we have for the situation involving him and Junior are all because of him. It's a sweet performance -- a cherry in the arsenic.

Erich: ...and then there's "Junior."

Adam: What is there to say about Michael Oliver as Junior? OMG. I think it's a "good" performance in that Oliver fulfills the function of the role -- he's terrible -- but my goodness, I had trouble with him at time in this movie, especially when he self-narrates ("Wow, he's on every channel!"). Some trivia: did you know Oliver's mother sued Universal for more money after Problem Child 2 and lost? That seems to have effectively ended his acting career.

Erich: I read about how Oliver's mother tried to hold Universal hostage to squeeze more money out of them for the sequel. Boy did she misread the situation and her son's talent. Then again, maybe she pegged it just right and realized it was her only shot to cash in on his swiftly setting moment in the sun.

Michael Oliver is straight up terrible in this movie. I don't get "devil child" from him as much as "bored child actor"—and that Southern twang! OOF. Even in a movie as bland and bad as this, it all comes down to the hilarious slapstick. Problem Child even screws that up. The fact that they had to add the voiceover to "sell" the pranks. Junior's hijinks are wildly inconsistent in quality and severity. One minute it's a frog in the punch bowl. The next minute it's attempted murder.
Adam: Macaulay Culkin was up for the role of Junior but did not get it. Do you think the movie would have been better with Big Mac? Can you imagine if he didn't do Home Alone because he was busy making Problem Child? It's almost too much for me to consider.

Erich: Interesting note about Macaulay Culkin, because I was wondering if Junior was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Home Alone. The timeline for that probably doesn't work out, but don't tell me. I don't want any spoilers for when I Google it later. Mac the Knife would have given the movie a better kid actor, but boy oh boy would that have killed his Mac-mentum. I don't know if Problem Child would have been any better without studio tinkering, but if the edgier bits they kept in the movie are any indication, they probably should have jettisoned the dark comedy completely. The scene where Flo jumps Michael Richards' bones is disturbing for several reasons, the casual use of terms like "Japs" makes my skin crawl, and the sheer nastiness of everyone who isn't John Ritter leaves me with basically no one to root for. Though perhaps the film's greatest villains are the Mike Love-led Beach Boys for agreeing to record the title song. John Cusack must be spinning in his grave.

Adam: Fun fact: I was so excited about the movie Problem Child back in July 1990 that I wrote a song about the movie. The only lyric I remember was "He was a problem child." I remember seeing the movie opening weekend with my parents and being discouraged that G-D or whomever didn't figure out a way for my song to make it into the movie. Long story short, you were not the only one upset by The Beach Boys' "Problem Child."

You know what's weird about Problem Child? It actually might be one of director Dennis Dugan's better movies. Where would you rank it in the Dugan-igoraphy?

Erich: It doesn't appear that I've seen any of Dennis Dugan's other movies, so based on that I would have to rank it as the worst thing he's ever done.

Adam: I have to give bizarro props to the movie for using maybe every cliched song they could have, including "Bad to the Bone," "Born to be Wild," and "Real Wild Child." This movie has no shame.

Erich: You know, I made a note while watching the movie that they chose every song that had the words "bad" or "wild" in the title. Although now that I think of it, they left out "Walk on the Wild Side." Too bad, I think the movie could have used a prank montage set to the story of gender bending Andy Warhol acolytes.

I was just skimming through a Yahoo 25th anniversary article and it sounds like Dennis Dugan doesn't like critics and doesn't read anything people write about his movies. Which I guess means we're safe? I realize I misspoke earlier. I missed that Dugan directed Happy Gilmore. I've seen that a bunch and I liked it at the time. Another thing I read in that article is that the studio was furious with Dugan for shooting so much film, though they softened a bit when he explained he needed it to capture all of Gilbert Gottfried's ad-libbing. What do you think of Gottfried in the movie? He feels the ad-libbiest, but he gets a few of the better lines. It could be worse. It could be Dennis Miller.
Adam: That's amazing about Dugan shooting so much film considering the movie runs about 75 minutes without the end credits. Gottfried is fine. I'm not the biggest fan of his but I don't dislike him either. I think he knows he's in schlock and is trying to make the best of it.

Are there any scenes in this movie that you like or think "work"?

Erich: I generally like the Bowtie Killer stuff. It feels yanked out of a different movie, and it's hard to imagine Michael Richards scaring the hell out of an entire prison, but he's always fun to watch and I like the idea of a murderer who thinks a kid pen pal on the outside is a criminal peer. Maybe they wanted to do more with that in the original version of the movie? Probably not, but I'm going to pretend that's the case. In the end, it's a missed opportunity for Junior to realize that this hero he idolized is a monster and was never his friend. And don't get me started on the Flo - Bowtie mess. I'm glad Amy Yasbeck and John Ritter met and fell in love while making this movie because that's the only good thing to come out of her playing such a shrill, unfair caricature of a vapid '80s housewife. Wait, did you ask me if there was anything I LIKED in this movie? Oops. Sorry.

Adam: Speaking of which, sorry again for making you watch this.

Erich: No problem, child.


  1. My only experience with this movie is the little snippet shown during the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, where Max Cady sits in front of the Bowdens and laughs uproariously at everything. I think they showed a total of 20 seconds of Problem Child, and that was enough.

  2. My parents took me to see this when it came out. I'm sure they hated it. I remember, as a Problem Child purist, being insulted and disgusted upon seeing the sequel. This does not bode well for a revisit of either movie.