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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Problem Child' Shrieks but Doesn't Amuse

July 30, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Junior Healy, of "Problem Child" (which opened citywide Friday), is the Kid from Hell, an evil-minded 8-year-old who wreaks havoc everywhere: setting fire to his bedroom, torturing cats, shooing wild bears onto his camp mates and unleashing an escaped serial killer on his whole adoptive family.

The film begins with a frenzied montage where he's progressively dropped in a basket on four successive doorsteps--all increasingly lower on the socioeconomic scale--and finally stowed at an orphanage, where he tries to incite food riots and mutilate nuns.

Sound funny? The filmmakers here think so. They've jacked this loud, lame shrieker of a movie up to the highest decibels, both aural and visual, and rammed it in our faces with almost numbing aplomb. All the actors are snowed under, including that normally empathic farceur, John Ritter--though Michael Oliver (as Junior) actually has moments and Jack Warden (as irascible Gramps Healy), walks through this atrocity with the offhand contempt it deserves.

The movie begins with Junior urinating all over his first prospective foster parent--he has great aim for a baby--and ends with a low-angle shot of cow-dung about to be dropped right in our faces. That about sums up the humor at the writers' disposal: Their joke repertoire seems limited to No. 1 and No. 2.

In between the scatological drollery, the writers (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) try to mainline a little "heart" into things, by setting up a struggle for Junior's affections between his good, kind, liberal, there's-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-boy dad (Ritter), and the Bow Tie Killer, a grungy homicidal maniac (Michael Richards) to whom Junior has been writing fan letters since his arrest.

"Problem Child" (MPAA rated PG--an absurd judgment about which parents should think twice) plays like a long, rich-kid nightmare. At one point, it's suggested that Ritter's Ben is being horribly mistreated because he won't get to inherit his dad's money and land. Given the moral level of this movie, disinheritance may pass for a mortal sin, while serial killing is only a "cute" venial one.

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