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JACK MATHEWS

The Problem With Universal's 'Problem Child'

August 11, 1990|JACK MATHEWS

The marketing staff at Universal Pictures must have had a lot of fun writing the blurbs for its ad campaign for "Problem Child"--for about 10 minutes anyway. How long could it have taken to come up with such howlers as " 'Two Thumbs Up!'--Captain Hook"? or " 'I Wish He Were My Son'--Darth Vader"? or " 'A 10+! Junior Had Me in Stitches!'--Frankenstein"?

The gag blurbs are just about as inspired as the movie, so, in that sense, there is truth in advertising. And no one can say they haven't been effective; during its first 10 days in release, "Problem Child" picked willing American moviegoers' pockets for about $20 million.

Universal has succeeded with "Problem Child" without the benefit of opening-day reviews or pre-release publicity. The movie was not screened in advance for critics, a decision that is the equivalent of an in-house pan, and the only publicity for it came from animal rights groups protesting its apparent abuse of cats. A poster for "Problem Child" showed a panicked cat whirling in a front-load dryer, and the trailer showed a cat walking gingerly on splintered broken legs.

In both instances, the implication was that the movie's title character (the screenwriters dub the story a "comic 'Bad Seed' ") tortured cats as part of his general run of terror.

"We don't think there's anything funny about abusing animals," says Kathy Novelli, of San Francisco-based In Defense of Animals, which is planning more protests against "Problem Child." "Kids are very impressionable. They see a cat in a dryer and say, 'Hey, that's a great idea.' It's giving kids ideas they don't need."

The dryer scene is not actually in the movie and never was, according to studio sources, which makes the marketing department guilty of deception as well as bad taste. Novelli says her group has been successful in getting some theaters to take down the poster, but check your local multiplex; the kitty-in-the-dryer poster is everywhere.

There is a cat shown in the movie high-stepping across a lawn with his paws bandaged (cats hate it when that happens) and among the millions of kids who are exposed to the sight gag, some will undoubtedly try it at home with Boots. A few, as Novelli fears, may even put theirs in a dryer. But this film could be doing much greater harm than that in its indirect exploitation of child abuse.

Junior, a 7-year-old who had been shuffled from home to home is presented in the film as a satanic mischief-maker who is ultimately redeemed by the patience of the Super Dad (John Ritter) who adopts him. Along the way to salvation, however, Junior is the perfect devil--setting fires, bombing birthday cakes, tormenting his cat, nearly killing his adoptive grandfather. (Are your sides aching yet?)

It is a dark coincidence, and probably one reason why Universal dumped "Problem Child" on the market without preview press screenings, that HBO aired the documentary "Child of Rage" just weeks earlier. "Child of Rage" focused on an adopted girl named Beth who, her unsuspecting adoptive parents quickly learned, was self-destructive and homicidal. She tormented the family dog, killed some baby birds and attempted to kill her younger brother. In therapy, it was learned that she had been severely abused by her natural father and had come to believe that though she was not OK, her behavior was.

"Hers was a serious case, but nothing about it was unusual," says Anne Cohn, executive director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and a consultant on "Child of Rage." "Children who are abused most often will have a tremendous rage and sense of insecurity."

Cohn says she is "appalled" at the theme of "Problem Child" and thinks the flipness with which people approach child abuse is doing harm by suggesting the behavior depicted is acceptable.

"I'm reminded of a little cartoon on an air-freshener package showing (Bart) Simpson being strangled by his father," Cohn says. "It's meant to be funny, but the strangling of children by their parents (occurs) and it's not funny."

As it happens, there's a scene in "Problem Child" where the fed-up adoptive dad slips into Junior's room at one point and briefly considers smothering him with a pillow. It gets a big laugh every time.

Cohn puts "Problem Child" in a class with the popular TV show "America's Favorite Home Videos," which she says seems to encourage child abuse. "People think these videos are hilarious, but what they often show are parents setting their children up for disaster. Humor can help us make light of ourselves, but I don't think that's what ('Problem Child') is doing. It's making fun of a victim."

Jeri Ryan, a child psychologist in San Francisco, says that children often abuse pets because in exercising control over something that can't fight back it fills--in a false way--a need for power. She's concerned that "Problem Child" can be suggesting that kind of behavior to abused children.

"Seeing that abuse taken lightly gives permission to behave the same way; it idealizes it," Ryan says. "Children don't see the finality of things. Imagine the guilt they would feel if they put an animal in a dryer and it was harmed or died."

Other experts in adoption services fear the fallout from the film's suggestion that adopting older children is more of a risk than it actually is. The majority of older adopted children are, in fact, abused children, and, if the problems aren't worked out, these experts agree, the kids do internalize guilt and often express it as acted-out rage. But they say these problems have been worked through before a child is put up for adoption.

Executives at Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, a production company that had courted an image as a maker of family theme films before this dubious enterprise, were unavailable for comment.

And, by the way, for those who think the movie rating system works, "Problem Child" is rated PG.

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