Facing a godless existence with “Problem Child” and setting lust sights to Greta Scacchi in “Presumed Innocent.”
Nutshell: Ben (John Ritter) and Flo (Amy Yasbeck) are desperate for a child to help complete their lives, but their infertility has blocked the way. Looking to adopt, the couple is introduced to Junior (Michael Oliver), a demonic child who tears through temporary parents, terrorizing anything or anyone that comes near him. Taking Junior home, Ben hopes for the rich, satisfying experience of fatherhood. Instead, he finds Junior destroying his life, even going as far as to invite a serial killer (Michael Richards) to the house to assume parental responsibilities.
1990: I’ve mentioned this before, but as a kid, you’re accustomed to enjoying most moviegoing adventures. Finally out of the house and filled with goodies, there’s little time to dwell on the nasty business of bad cinema. That’s a sport for adults. “Problem Child” taught me that you’re never too young to recognize a complete cinematic catastrophe.
I wasn’t looking for trouble that summer afternoon. Trouble found me.
“What’s your least favorite movie?’ “What film do you despise the most?” “If trapped in Hell, what picture would be playing nonstop to drive you insane?” As a film critic, I’m routinely hit with these questions, and there’s never a good answer. I see so many dreadful movies these days, it’s hard to pick just one to represent the nadir of moviegoing migraines. An answer for such a critical question needs to come from an intestinal place of horror -- a title that represents a sloshy gut-ache of despair, from an innocent time when such reactions were never thought possible.
“Problem Child” hit me like a snow shovel to the face in 1990. It was a kiddie picture, aimed slightly below my demographic, but not normally a film to be wary of. A slapstick comedy centered on the antics of a devilish ginger, it came across perfectly harmless, ready to please with magic marker cinematography, a George Thorogood-centric marketing grind, and lead turn from John Ritter. Surely if Ritter found the material approachable, it couldn’t be that bad, right?
I still feel the weight of that monstrous screening to this day, sinking down low in my seat as the picture paraded an endless succession of vulgarities, bathroom humor, and mean-spiritedness in front of the audience, who brayed with approval for every punchline and testicular beating. I couldn’t stand the movie and its deadening, ugly sense of humor; it was a shocking feeling of discovery, with every frame worse than the one that preceded it. After a good run where I could pretty much pick the sunshine out of any cloudy day, “Problem Child” shattered my multiplex optimism, showing me that a film could actually punish with its stupidity and careless jesting. It was a movie aimed at the lowest common denominator, and I was offended. No kid should ever be offended by a feature film.
The worst movie of all time? “Problem Child.” That’s my answer.
2010: Today, I get it. “Problem Child” is meant to be anarchic and edgy, scripted by bio-pic bloodhounds Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski as a delightful, apple-cheeked R-rated romp into the outer reaches of bad behavior. Because who doesn’t love animal cruelty, underage cursing, serial killer admiration, infertility and infidelity jokes, and various poop and pee gags?
Stuffed into an itchy PG shell, the film remains a blaringly obnoxious feature, as shrill and unpleasant as moviemaking gets. It’s hard to believe the picture has remained such a potent cancer in my life, but rewatching “Problem Child” left me just as cold as before, only for this spin I had a better sense of its irreverent architecture. I still detest the final product, but it’s clear to me what director Dennis Dugan was going for: chaos -- it usually pleases kids and is often mistaken for cleverness. Perhaps it was the only reasonable way to commit such diseased material to film. Make it loud, make it ugly, and hope audiences won’t notice. And they didn’t, turning “Problem Child” (the worst film of 1990) into a minor hit, with a sequel (the worst film of 1991) churned out in a hurry to capitalize on Junior Fever.
Where “Problem Child” bugs the most is its ear-splitting frequency, straining to be the most insufferable film in history. Dugan directs as though he’s plugged into a stack of Marshall Amps, wailing on every contaminated comedic note until the crowds submit, blood pouring out of their ears. I’ve rarely seen a film so insistently aggravating. The idea is to fashion Junior as a hilarious little monster of profound decibels, but there’s nothing amusing about the character. The script attempts to introduce compassion in the late going, as though there’s a shot in hell anyone would find the core relationship between Junior and Ben endearing. After 70 minutes of watching the kid thrash cats around, piss on a campfire, and model himself after a killer, it boggles the mind to consider anyone in the production would find the repellent character sympathetic. The film gets so lost in angry pranks, it forgets to provide a reason why Junior shouldn’t be hung from the nearest tree.
As Junior, young Michael Oliver is a fantastically grating screen presence. Robotically shuffling around the film waiting for his cues, Oliver looks as though he’s being motivated by remote control -- he’s an intolerable kid actor who eerily goes dead when finished with his lines. Hating on a nine-year-old a bit much? You sit through this movie and tell me you weren’t rooting for Junior’s demise. Oliver’s work here presses hard on cutesy mischief -- it’s Dennis the Menace meets Hannibal Lecter, with lines spat out by an amateur thespian possessing a range defined by whatever off-camera bribe could be found to hold him in place. To compete, Ritter cranks his everyman shtick up to 11, pounding the misery of this madness in deeper.
“Problem Child” rubbed me raw, and while I’ve seen numerous films throughout the years that have matched its awfulness, there’s nothing quite as memorable as your first time. And by first time, I mean the first time I realized a movie could do more harm than good.
Nutshell: Prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is handed the case of his life with the brutal murder of colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), a sultry woman he once had an extramarital affair with. When the evidence begins to trickle in, all signs point to Sabich as the killer, with the legal expert put on trial, effectively destroying his life, while wife Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia) watches from the sidelines, horrified by the details. Under the guidance of lawyer Sandy Stern (Raul Julia), Sabich looks to clear his name, finding the prosecution’s efforts to nail him for the crime suspect, but nevertheless debilitating.
1990: Like “Jetsons: The Movie,” I skipped out on “Presumed Innocent” during its initial theatrical run. I passed for reasons unknown, but I’m sure it had to do with R-rated accessibility and overall disinterest in the dour legal drama, despite Indiana Jones in the lead role. The film would come into view later on VHS, where I made a valiant attempt to keep up with adult problems in an adult world of accusation. This was not a film for a young teenager. At least, not a young teenager in 1990. I’m sure today’s youth could pass the bar exam if Wii Points were dangled in front of them.
“Presumed Innocent” might’ve flown over my head at the time, but I certainly could appreciate the concentration of the drama, the appealing performance from Harrison Ford as horny schmuck Sabich, and the gale force lust of Greta Scacchi.
The Euro actress made quite an impression on my impressionable mind back in the day, with her silky charms creating a believable pull of deception the entire film hinged upon. Director Alan J. Pakula knew exactly what he had with Scacchi, playing up her scorching appeal cunningly, which boiled over into an unexpectedly graphic sex scene (at least for Han Solo) -- a heated moment that turned the actress into a femme fatale du jour, a label Scacchi tried her best to refuse for majority of her career. Still, she radiated mesmerizing libertine swagger here, portraying an unethical character gifted with the finest assets to manipulate any man in her view.
I mean, honestly. Sabich torching his marriage and career makes perfect sense opposite a full-court-press from the likes of Greta Scacchi. Pakula was no fool.
2010: It’s actually quite timely to rewatch “Presumed Innocent” now, as novelist Scott Turow recently returned to his greatest success, penning a sequel titled “Innocent” that picks up Sabich two decades later, once again facing an accusation of murder. Seems the Sabich saga is still swimming along, and for a good reason: “Presumed Innocent” is an engrossing, lightly venomous legal drama with ideal left turns and a sharp cast of enigmatic characters.
Pakula was a master of the cocktail-hour thriller, constructing a few classics in his day, all solidified with tremendous performances and studied mood. “Presumed Innocent” is a little less heated than the likes of “Klute” and “The Parallax View,” interested in a soothing tone of invasion, tracking the desperation of Sabich as his indiscretions come back to torch his life. It’s a muted picture, preferring to study the internal erosion of the main character, who’s facing assured sentencing for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. There’s little time for flailing in the picture, which assumes an investigative route, searching for clues and connections that could prove Sabich’s innocence, despite his initial sinful temptation.
Pakula doesn’t urge the suspense, only the tension between characters, which richly outlines the stakes. Sabich is ambushed from all sides, taking hits from friends, colleagues, and his own wife; it’s a community that doesn’t want to believe in guilt, but can’t help but trust the evidence. Assembled in a more classical filmmaking style of reveals and anxiety, “Presumed Innocent” sucks the viewer in gradually, doling out necessary information patiently, keeping the film at a beautiful hum for two straight hours. Pakula indulges Turow’s characterization whenever he can (Polhemus remains a surprisingly committed black widow-type, with no redemptive qualities outside of her looks), yet the director massages the dread out of the script with a careful touch, trusting the qualities of screen silence to address the elephant in the room, without resorting to the introduction of an actual elephant (Joel Schumacher’s weakness in his John Grisham films).
Ford is a superb lead for the film, using his instinctive sense of distance to coolly reflect Sabich’s professional commitment. It’s not a flamboyant performance, but one of terrified reflection -- the lawyer facing the extremity of the law, with full awareness of the rabbit hole he’s been pushed into. Much was made about Ford’s hairstyle at the time, with the actor rocking a Caesar cut about four years before George Clooney made the look mandatory. Really, tabloid television types made it their mission to point out Ford’s unusual appearance, fearing the screen hunk’s sex appeal would diminish due to the severity of the cut. Apparently, it was a slow news week.
“Presumed Innocent” collects a wonderful assortment of character actors to help flesh out Turow’s material, with Brian Dennehy, Paul Winfield, and John Spenser providing additional highlights. The best turn is saved for Raul Julia, serenely effective as Sabich’s ace lawyer, who takes great delight in torpedoing the prosecution’s case. Julia is a gem in a small supporting role, making the courtroom sequences come alive with verbal fire and knowing looks.
A composed, absorbing drama, “Presumed Innocent” is the granddaddy of the legal thriller obsession of the 1990s. In my view, it’s the best of the batch, with a fresh viewing able to leap the Scacchi obsession and appreciate the finer points and coldblooded execution of a complex story.Coming next week…
Blazing up some glory with a second round of the kid cowboys.
And Spike Lee returns to theaters in a hurry to sing the blues.