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Short Cuts - Guilty Pleasures: Problem Child (1990)

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Saturday, Aug 19, 2006


What is it about this deliriously dopey 1990 comedy that makes it so endearing? Is it the saccharine statements about child rearing, the touchy feely subtext which suggests that biology and procreation cures all marital ills? Is it the simple story of a misunderstood orphan who finds love and compassion with a kindhearted couple? Perhaps it’s the third act switcheroo that tosses aside the difficult youngster at the center of the story for a bizarre turn by Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards as the world’s silliest serial killer? Maybe it’s the sloppy, stupid slapstick or adolescent level gags. Whatever the case, the reason Problem Child truly holds such a staggeringly sweet spot in all our culpable cinematic consciousness is because of its star, the unbelievably obtuse child actor, Michael Oliver. Never before in the history of underage thespianism has one kid crammed so much staggering badness into a single perplexing performance. From his razor wire voice that’s a combination of ventriloquist dummy and flu-ravaged coloratura, to his cardboard as character trait stiffness, and you’ve got the perfect remedy for the precocious, stage mothered bratling that’s typically featured in such hackneyed family fare.


Oliver’s illogical iconography, honed from haphazard hardwood that’s just as flexible, was a perfect contrast to the late John Ritter’s warm geniality, Amy Yazbeck’s harpy haughtiness, and Jack Warden’s walking fart joke. Together, they melded into the kind of crack comic company that could take a page of dialogue and actually infuse it with energy and excitement. Otherwise, this was a sitcom without the shrewdness, which is all the more odd when you consider that it was scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the pair who wrote the wonderful Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon (granted, they also penned the pathetic Agent Cody Banks and the unnecessary That Darn Cat remake). Even actor turned director Dennis Dugan can’t fully be blamed for the baffling incongruities here, as he went on to helm the amazing Marx Brothers/Three Stooges redux, Brain Donors. No, it’s all Oliver, his penguin in a pottiness shining above and beyond all the other rancid elements in this hair brained humoresque. While the inevitable sequel went for the gross-out, stay with the original Problem paradigm. It offers the most addled thrills for your comedy cache.

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