Problem Child (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Dennis Dugan|
|Produced by||Robert Simonds|
|Written by||Scott Alexander|
|Music by||Miles Goodman|
|Cinematography||Peter Lyons Collister|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$72.2 million|
Problem Child is a 1990 American black comedy film directed by Dennis Dugan in his directional debut and produced by Robert Simonds. It stars John Ritter, Michael Oliver, Amy Yasbeck, Gilbert Gottfried, Jack Warden, and Michael Richards. It was released on July 27, 1990.
Despite receiving negative reviews from critics, Problem Child went on to be a box office success, grossing $54 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.
Ben Healy is a good-natured guy working for his father, "Big Ben", a very successful, but tyrannical sporting goods dealer running for mayor. Although Ben has worked under his father's employ without so much as a raise or promotion in return, his father plans on handing over control of the company and ownership of the land to Japanese buyers rather than passing it on to his son, seeing his son as "too nice" to be his heir. Meanwhile, Ben and his social-climbing wife, Flo, have been unable to conceive, and visit a fertility doctor who tells them they are both infertile.
Ben approaches an adoption agent, Igor Peabody, with his dilemma, and Igor presents him and Flo with a cute 7-year-old boy named Junior. However, he is hardly a model child; devilish and incorrigible. He tends to leave a path of serious destruction in his wake, and is even pen pals with Martin Beck, a notorious serial killer. The film is interspersed with scenes of an imprisoned Martin looking to escape and meet up with Junior, whom he misconstrues as a fellow criminal named "J.R."
Shortly after Ben and Flo bring Junior home, Big Ben visits, and is shocked that they adopted. Junior's bedroom catches fire when he shorts out the electric clown lights in it, and Big Ben refers to him as "The Devil." Junior throws the pet cat at Big Ben and they both fall down the stairs.
Next, Junior ruins a camping trip with the neighbors by urinating on the campfire, and by manipulating a practical joke played on the kids by their father. He then terrorizes his neighbors' daughter's birthday party, after Lucy, the snobby birthday girl, bans him from her magic show for touching her presents. During the party, Ben gives Junior his good-luck prune, which his grandfather gave him shortly before he died, and which he considered a special bond. Finally, Junior displays an effective but unethical method for winning in Little League, which involves assaulting rival players with a baseball bat after they bully him. Ben begins having serious doubts about Junior, and decides to take him back to the orphanage. However, upon hearing that Junior has already been returned 30 times, Ben decides to keep and love him, something no one has ever done. Junior accuses Ben of lying to him. Ben leaves his car keys in the ignition, and Junior drives it into Big Ben's sporting goods store, causing substantial damage. Ben finally gives up when his financial advisor calls and says his individual retirement account has been seized by Big Ben to pay for the damage done to his store.
Martin escapes from prison and arrives at the house, with Junior asserting he is his uncle, and Flo sees this as a chance to be rid of Junior. Martin kidnaps Flo and Junior by pretending to take them on a family outing, and leaves a ransom note for Ben.
While Ben first sees this as good riddance to both Flo and Junior, he soon starts to notice indications that Junior is not as bad as he initially seemed. In a series of drawings, Junior depicts children and adults who mistreated him as deformed monsters with hostile surroundings, but depicts Ben as a happy man in a pleasant background with his good-luck prune, revealing that he did value him as a father figure. Ben realizes that Junior's behavior was simply a reaction to his childhood treatment by the rather selfish and condescending people he had been surrounded by most of his young life, undertakes a rescue mission to get him back from Martin.
With a more assertive attitude, Ben first steals his neighbor's car and hat and drives it all over their yard. He also appeals to Big Ben for the ransom money. When Big Ben says Ben ought to see the circumstances as the ultimate change for the better and let Flo and Junior rot, Ben pushes a button that puts him unknowingly on camera, where he ends up revealing his true nature on the news, even mooning the camera. Ben catches up with Martin and Junior at the circus. Junior is rescued after escaping from Martin through a trapeze act, and he calls Ben "Dad" for the first time.
Martin drives away, but the Healys are now on his tail. Flo, who was kidnapped and locked in a suitcase, tells Ben she wants a divorce, and he angrily yells "Shut up, Flo!" Eventually, the suitcase flies over the wall, and ends up in the back of a pig farmer's truck. Martin is arrested, but not before getting a shot off, which hits Ben in the chest. Thinking he has died, Junior begs Ben to not die, apologizes for everything he's done, promises not to do anything naughty again, and says he loves him. Ben wakes up and says "I love you, too, son." Junior, happy that Ben is alive, happily exclaims "Dad?! I don't believe it!" Ben then pulls out a "Big Ben for mayor" button with a bullet hole, and says he doesn't believe it either. Junior asks Ben if he will be okay. Ben then says he will, but then he realizes the bullet struck his good-luck prune, damaging it. Junior then wonders if Ben will hold him to all he said about being nice. Ben denies it, and tells Junior that he just wants Junior to be himself, to which Junior replies "Some people never learn.", and he and Ben hug. Ben and Junior head off for home, but before they walk away, Junior pulls off his bow-tie, and throws it over the bridge. In the back of a pig farmer's truck, Flo sees the scrotum of a pig, and disgustedly exclaims "Oh, my God!"
- Michael Oliver as Junior Healy
- John Ritter as Benjamin "Ben" Healy Jr.
- Jack Warden as Benjamin "Big Ben" Healy Sr., Ben's wealthy, but mean and selfish father who holds contempt for his son's kindness and considerate personality
- Gilbert Gottfried as Igor Peabody, the adoption agent at the orphanage who is Junior second nemesis and wants Junior out of the orphanage out of his life.
- Amy Yasbeck as Florence "Flo" Healy, Ben's social-climbing wife
- Michael Richards as Martin Beck, an escaped convict who goes by the moniker "Bow-Tie Killer"
- Peter Jurasik as Roy, Ben and Flo's neighbor
- Colby Kline as Lucy, a mean and spoiled brat whose personality spurs Junior into ruining her 6th birthday party
- 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. In addition, there were two weeks of reshoots in Dallas (see below) in March 1990.
Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Martin, Rick Moranis and Kurt Russell were considered for the role of Little Ben before it was turned over to John Ritter. The part of Martin "The Bow-Tie Killer" 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 Problem Child, 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. A then-unknown child actor Macaulay Culkin reportedly auditioned for Junior before the role was taken by Michael Oliver.
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" 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. 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), 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 which 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, 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."
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 and saying, "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 directing, for the role of Ben Healy. The studio was initially reluctant, feeling they needed a more famous actor, but eventually relented. Jack Warden turned down the role of "Big Ben" Healy 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. Both Ritter 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.
The film debuted at third place. It went on to be a commercial success at the box office, grossing $54 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.
The film received negative reviews upon its release. On Rotten Tomatoes, it received an approval rating of 0% based on 29 reviews, with a average rating of 2.27/10. 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". On Metacritic, it has a 27/100 score based on 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "A-" on scale of A to F.
Although the film was rated PG, it is still heavily censored when shown on television due to the remarks made about adoption, which critics saw as insensitive. It was not screened for critics prior to its release. It acquired a PG rating instead of a PG-13 rating, in regards to a scene where Big Ben mooning a camera is briefly shown; as well as a scene that briefly reveals snapshots that Junior took of people on toilets and in showers.
Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post:
|“||Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well, so that there's still some surprise 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.||”|
Protests over posters
One of the posters for the film showed a cat in a tumble dryer, with the implication being that Junior had put it inside. A group named In Defence Of Animals organised protests against the posters, and some cinemas took them down in response. The group also objected to a scene in the film in which Junior splinters a cat's legs.
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.
The film was more successful on home video. The VHS version adds an extra bit just before the closing credits, in which Junior interrupts it 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, then the closing credits roll. 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. 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.
It was released on Blu-ray on October 10, 2017. Problem Child 2 was released on Blu-ray on May 15, 2018.
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 the NBC in 1995. The first one brought back the original cast in their original roles and picked up where the first film ended. However, Yasbeck was given a new role with a new dynamic totally opposite to her original character. In the third and final film, recast Ben and Junior with William Katt and Justin Chapman, while Gottfried and Warden reprised their roles as Igor Peabody and Big Ben and does not follow the storyline of the first two films.
There was an animated TV series that aired in 1993. 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 cartoon (Warden was in all three films, but not the TV series).
Twelve minutes worth of deleted footage were featured in most, if not all, television airings of the film. None of these scenes have ever been available on DVD. The first TV version aired on September 15, 1991, on NBC-TV. The profanity in it was redubbed with milder obscenities and phrases.
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