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Problem Child (film)

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Problem Child
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDennis Dugan
Written byScott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski
Produced byRobert Simonds
CinematographyPeter Lyons Collister
Edited by
Music byMiles Goodman
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • July 27, 1990 (1990-07-27)
Running time
81 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$11 million[2]
Box office$72.2 million[3]

Problem Child is a 1990 American comedy film directed by Dennis Dugan in his feature film directorial debut and produced by Robert Simonds. It stars John Ritter, Michael Oliver, Jack Warden, Gilbert Gottfried, Amy Yasbeck, and Michael Richards. It was released on July 27, 1990.

Despite receiving negative reviews from critics, the film was a box office success, grossing $72.2 million worldwide against a production budget of $10 million.

It was followed by two sequels, Problem Child 2 (1991) and the made for TV Problem Child 3: Junior in Love (1995).


Ben Healy Jr. is a pleasant but browbeaten yuppie working for his father, "Big Ben" Healy Sr., a tyrannical sporting goods dealer running for mayor. He would love to have a son, but his obnoxious wife, Flo, has been unable to conceive. He approaches less-than-scrupulous adoption agent Igor Peabody with his dilemma, and Peabody presents him and Flo with a cute 7-year-old boy named Junior.

However, Junior is hardly a model child; mean-spirited and incorrigible, he leaves a path of severe destruction in his wake and is even pen pals with Martin "the Bow Tie Killer" Beck, a notorious serial killer. The Healys' cat, Fuzzball, ends up in the animal hospital. Big Ben falls down the stairs, and his room catches on fire. He messes up a camping trip with his neighbor, Roy, and his family by urinating on the campfire and manipulating a practical joke played on the kids by Roy. Junior then terrorizes his neighbor Lucy's birthday party after she bans him from seeing the magic show. Finally, he displays his method for winning in a Little League baseball game, which involves hitting rival players in the crotch with the bat. Ben has severe doubts about him and takes him back to the orphanage. However, upon hearing he was done so thirty times by previous adoptive families, he decides to keep and love him, something no one has ever done. Distraught, Junior retaliates by driving Ben's car into Big Ben's store, and Big Ben cleaned out Ben's bank account to pay for the damage. Ben is on the verge of cracking until Beck arrives at the house and decides to kidnap Junior and Flo.

While Ben initially sees this as good riddance to browbeating Flo and trouble-making Junior, he soon notices signs that Junior is not the monster he appeared to be; through a series of pictures he drew, he depicts children and adults who treated him poorly as deformed monsters with hostile surroundings, but depicted Ben as a person in a pleasant background, revealing that he did value him as a father figure. Realizing that Junior's behavior was simply a reaction to how he was treated as a child, and he merely had the misfortune of dealing with too many selfish narcissists from a young age, Ben undertakes a rescue mission to get him back from Beck.

Now exerting a more assertive attitude, Ben first steals Roy's car and hat and confronts Big Ben for money; when he is rudely dismissed, Ben pushes a button that unknowingly puts Big Ben on camera, where he reveals his true nature on the news, even mooning the camera.

Ben catches up with Beck and Junior at the circus. Junior gets rescued after escaping from Beck through a trapeze act. Beck drives away, but the Healys are now on his tail. After a collision, Flo, who was stuffed in a suitcase, flies over the bridge and ends up in the back of a truck loaded with pigs. Beck is arrested, but not before getting a shot off, which hits Ben in the chest. Thinking he has died, Junior apologizes and tells him that he loves him. Ben wakes up and realizes that the bullet ricocheted off the good-luck prune he had in his shirt pocket. Junior then removes his bow tie and throws it over the bridge as a symbol of rejecting his relationship with Beck (and realizing he'd been viewing the wrong person as a role model), and walks away with Ben.


  • John Ritter as Benjamin "Ben" Healy, Jr.
  • Michael Oliver as Junior Healy
  • Gilbert Gottfried as Igor Peabody, the adoption agent at the orphanage who is Junior's nemesis and wants him out of the orphanage and his life.
  • Amy Yasbeck as Florence "Flo" Healy, Ben's social-climbing wife who cares far more about the image of being a wife and mother rather than the actual responsibilities or morals.
  • Michael Richards as Martin Beck, a childish escaped convict who goes by the moniker "Bow Tie Killer".
  • Jack Warden as Benjamin "Big Ben" Healy, Sr., Ben's wealthy, mean, and selfish father who holds contempt for Ben's kindness and considerate personality.
  • Peter Jurasik as Roy, Ben and Flo's neighbor who is rather brash and arrogant.
  • Colby Kline as Lucy Henderson, a little girl whose birthday party is ruined by Junior.
  • Dennis Dugan (cameo) as All American Dad


The film was shot on location in Texas, from October 2 to November 24, 1989. The primary locations were Dallas, Farmers Branch, Fort Worth, Irving, and Mesquite. Also, there were two weeks of reshoots in Dallas in March 1990.[4]

Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Kurt Russell were considered for the role of Ben before it was turned over to John Ritter. The part of Martin Beck was originally offered to Christopher Lloyd, who turned it down because of his commitments with Back to the Future Part III, released two months before this one, and was replaced by Michael Richards; this was the second role, following UHF (1989), that Lloyd had turned down only to be taken by Richards.[5] Then-unknown child actor Macaulay Culkin reportedly auditioned for Junior, but Michael Oliver was ultimately cast.[6] Culkin would later play a character akin to Junior, albeit with a darker side, in the film The Good Son.

During a 2014 interview on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski revealed that the story was inspired by the 1988 Los Angeles Times article "An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins"[7] about a married couple suing an adoption agency after they were not informed that their adopted son had severe mental health issues with violent tendencies and had been previously returned to the agency multiple times.[7][8] While other writers pitched the story as a horror film in the vein of Bad Seed or The Omen, Alexander and Karaszewski thought it had potential as a comedy, envisioning a dark, adult satire of the then-popular trend in films where cute kids teach cynical adults how to love, as seen in Baby Boom, Parenthood (directly spoofed by the film's poster),[9][10] Look Who's Talking, Uncle Buck, Mr. Mom, Kindergarten Cop, and Three Men and a Baby. However, the studio insisted upon turning it into a children's film, a conversion that necessitated numerous reshoots and rewrites, leading to a difficult production that left all involved disappointed and anticipating a box office failure. It defied these expectations, becoming a surprise hit and Universal's most profitable film of 1990, but was still so embarrassing for Alexander and Karaszewski (Alexander even cried after the cast and crew screening) that they tried to distance themselves from it, which proved difficult. Studios were initially reluctant to hire them or take them seriously based on their work on such a prominent disreputable film but, as the years went by, they would eventually come to work with executives who were children when it first came out, and grew up watching its frequent TV airings, and were excited to be meeting its writers. Looking back, they still feel it's "a mess" but take some pride in being involved with one of the "very few [PG-rated] children's films that black and that crazy", citing the scene where Flo commits adultery with Martin while Ben is catatonic and contemplating murdering Junior in the next room as an example. They added, "And it's funny".[8]

In 2015, Dennis Dugan revealed that he was hired to direct the film, his first feature one (he'd previously directed episodes of the TV series Moonlighting, Wiseguy, and Hunter), after jumping on a coffee table in a meeting with Universal executives: "You're looking at me like I'm fucking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos". Dugan suggested John Ritter, with whom he'd worked as an actor before turning to direct, for the role of Ben. The studio was initially reluctant, feeling they needed a more famous actor, but eventually relented. Jack Warden turned down the role of Big Ben before Dugan offered him half of his net points; he was so touched that he took the part, although he refused Dugan's offer. Amy Yasbeck was cast as Flo; she and Ritter fell in love during production, eventually marrying in 1999. Ritter died in 2003. Both he and Gilbert Gottfried were allowed to ad lib while filming, but Universal reprimanded Dugan for shooting too much footage of the latter. The film's first test screening was disastrous, with 70 percent of the audience walking out, verbal complaints from viewers, and a score of only 30. The studio forced two weeks of reshoots, including a retooled ending and the addition of key scenes, such as Lucy's birthday party.[11]


A soundtrack was released by Universal the same day as the film, and included an original composition by The Beach Boys.[12]

Track listing
1."Bad to the Bone"George Thorogood4:57
2."Real Wild Child"Iggy Pop3:39
3."It's My Party"Lesley Gore2:20
4."Born to Be Wild"Steppenwolf3:33
5."Problem Child"The Beach Boys4:38


Box office[edit]

The film was released on July 27, 1990 and debuted in third place, behind Presumed Innocent and Ghost.[13] It went on to be a commercial success at the box office, grossing $53 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.[3]

Critical response[edit]

The film received negative reviews upon its release. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a rare approval rating of 0% based on 30 reviews, and an average rating of 2.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Mean-spirited and hopelessly short on comic invention, Problem Child is a particularly unpleasant comedy, one that's loaded with manic scenery chewing and juvenile pranks".[14] On Metacritic, it has a score of 27 out of 100 based on reviews from 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[15] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave it a grade "A−" on scale of A to F.[16]

The film was heavily censored when shown on television due to the remarks characters made about adoption, which critics saw as insensitive.[17] It was not screened for critics prior to its release.[17]

Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post:

Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well so that there are still some surprises in the punch lines when they come. Essentially, the problem here is the same as the problem in Gremlins 2. It's basically about tearing stuff up, and after a while, you grow tired of seeing variations on the same joke of a cute kid committing horrible atrocities.[18]

Protests over posters[edit]

One of the posters for the film showed the cat Fuzzball in a tumble dryer, with the implication being that Junior had put him inside.[17][6] A group named In Defence of Animals organized protests against the posters, and some cinemas took them down in response.[17] Director Dennis Dugan later issued a disclaimer saying that the "kitty in the dryer" was metaphorical and never an actual scene in the film. The protests sparked the inspiration for the sequel, this time with a poster of John Ritter inside a dryer looking out, while Fuzzball stands by it.


For the film (as well as The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Look Who's Talking Too), Gilbert Gottfried was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Trump in Ghosts Can't Do It.[19]

Home media[edit]

The film was more successful on home video.[20] The VHS version adds an extra bit just before the closing credits, in which Junior interrupts the sequence to tell the audience that he'll be back next summer for Problem Child 2. Then he disappears and a loud flatulent noise is heard, followed by Ben shouting, "Junior!", him laughing, and the roll of the closing credits. The VHS version was released on January 31, 1991.

The first DVD release was released by GoodTimes Entertainment on May 1, 2001. It and Problem Child 2 were released together on DVD in the US on March 2, 2004, as a package entitled Problem Child Tantrum Pack. They were presented in open-matte full screen only.[21] However, no home video release thus far features the deleted footage shown on TV airings of it.

The film was re-released on the Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (with other comedy films like Kindergarten Cop, Kicking & Screaming, and Major Payne) in anamorphic widescreen (being its first widescreen Region 1 DVD release) on August 5, 2008.[22]

It was released on Blu-ray on August 8, 2017.[23]

TV version[edit]

The film first aired on NBC on September 15, 1991,[24] with 12 minutes of previously deleted scenes and all the profanity was dubbed with different and appropriate words and phrases.



The film inspired two sequels: the first, Problem Child 2, was released theatrically in 1991; the second, Problem Child 3: Junior in Love, was a television film aired on NBC in 1995. The first one brought back the original cast in their original roles and picked up where the first film ended. However, Amy Yasbeck was given a new role with a new dynamic opposite to her original character. In the third and final film, William Katt and Justin Chapman replaced John Ritter and Michael Oliver as Ben and Junior respectively, while Gilbert Gottfried and Jack Warden reprised their roles as Igor Peabody and Big Ben and does not follow the storyline of the first two films.

Television series[edit]

The film was adapted into an animated television series that aired on USA Network for two seasons, from October 31, 1993, to December 4, 1994. Gilbert Gottfried was the only original cast member to be featured as a voice-over actor, making him the only cast member involved in all three films as well as the animated series.

In 2015, NBC ordered a pilot for a live-action TV series based on the film, produced by STXtelevision, Imagine TV, and NBCUniversal,[25] but the pilot was not picked up by the network.

In popular culture[edit]

The film was featured in a famous scene from Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear, where it is shown screening at a movie theatre attended by ex-convict Max Cady (Robert De Niro), attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and the latter's family. Cady, trying to unsettle Bowden and his family, loudly and obnoxiously cackles at the film.[26]


In 1995, a Turkish-language adaptation of the film was made called Zıpçıktı, which was directed by Ünal Küpeli and featured Şenol Coşkun in the lead role.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Problem Child (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  2. ^ "Problem Child (1990)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Archived from the original on May 17, 2023. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  3. ^ a b "Problem Child (1990) - Financial Information". The Numbers. Archived from the original on May 17, 2023. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  4. ^ "Problem Child". Daily Variety. February 26, 1990. p. 2.
  5. ^ O'Neil, Sean (March 23, 2015). "We got it all on UHF: An oral history of "Weird Al" Yankovic's cult classic". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on August 18, 2017. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  6. ^ a b Cormier, Roger (June 21, 2016). "16 Devilish Facts About Problem Child". Mental Floss. Archived from the original on May 17, 2023. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  7. ^ a b "An Adopted Boy-and Terror Begins". Los Angeles Times. January 4, 1988. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski". Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast! (Podcast). Sideshow Network. December 21, 2014. Archived from the original on December 29, 2014.
  9. ^ "Parenthood and Problem Child videocassette cover". Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  10. ^ West, Kelly (October 2, 2014). "Problem Child Is Coming Back In This Form". Cinemablend.com. Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  11. ^ "'Problem Child' Turns 25: Director on John Ritter Ad-Libs, Test Audience Walkouts". The Hollywood Reporter. July 26, 2015. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  12. ^ Greene, Andy (January 10, 2017). "Flashback: The Beach Boys Record 'Problem Child' Theme Song". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on May 17, 2023. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  13. ^ "'Ghost' Hovers Behind No. 1 'Presumed Innocent': WEEKEND BOX OFFICE". Los Angeles Times. July 31, 1990. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  14. ^ "Problem Child". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on March 30, 2019. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  15. ^ "Problem Child". Metacritic. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  16. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
  17. ^ a b c d Mathews, Jack (August 11, 1990). "The Problem With Universal's 'Problem Child'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 23, 2012. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  18. ^ Hinson, Hal (July 28, 1990). "'Problem Child' (PG)". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on December 10, 2017. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  19. ^ "Eleventh Annual RAZZIE Awards (for 1990)". razzies.com. Archived from the original on November 27, 2010. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  20. ^ Hunt, Dennis (February 21, 1991). "VIDEO RENTALS: Three New Players Enter the Top Five". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved January 11, 2011.
  21. ^ "Problem Child". Whiggles.landofwhimsy.com. Archived from the original on July 13, 2011. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  22. ^ "Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (Widescreen)". NBC Universal Store. Archived from the original on September 30, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  23. ^ "Problem Child Blu-ray". Blu-ray.com. Archived from the original on May 17, 2023. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  24. ^ "Sunday TV". NY Daily News. New York City, New York. September 15, 1991.
  25. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (January 29, 2015). "Problem Child Comedy Based On Movie Gets NBC Pilot Order". Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on June 13, 2018. Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  26. ^ Collis, Clark (July 31, 2017). "Trailers From Hell Guru Illeana Douglas Explains How 'Problem Child' Wound up in 'Cape Fear'". EW.com. Archived from the original on September 22, 2022. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  27. ^ "Zıpçıktı Cafer Rolüyle Tanıyıp Erken Kaybettiğimiz Galatasaray Tribünü Efsanesi: Şenol Coşkun" (in Turkish). seyler.eksisozluk.com. March 22, 2017. Archived from the original on September 22, 2022. Retrieved July 23, 2020.

External links[edit]