I forbid you to bond with this boy!
Bruce Willis has a good eye for little boy screen partners. Where last year’s The Sixth Sense granted the erstwhile action star precious quality screentime with the eerily talented Haley Joel Osment, this year’s Disney’s The Kid lets him perform alongside the preternaturally charming Spencer Breslin. Young Spencer is a veteran of Life cereal and McDonalds commercials, but this is the first time he’s played a title role, let alone a title role in a multi-million. dollar Disney project. And truly, the boy carries it off. He’s amusing and adorable, and he holds his own against Willis’s seemingly uncontrollable smirkiness.
The rest of the film does less well. Co-produced and directed by Jon Turtletaub (Instinct) and written by Audrey Wells (George of the Jungle), the remarkably feeble plot has Willis playing Russ, a high-powered LA image consultant who, during a Disney-style meltdown on the eve of his 40th birthday, meets his 8-year-old self. The meeting is foreshadowed by a cutesy motif that first occurs during the credits sequence: a red prop plane appears to be following Russ around as he drives on the freeway or crosses the street. This little visitation from his past (apparently he wanted to be a pilot as a boy and played with a toy version of this plane) would be creepy especially since the plane actually dives at him on once or twice but the irksomely buoyant soundtrack lets you know that everything’s really just peachy.
Still, Russ’s meeting with his younger self is a bit of a jolt. They go through some understandable awkwardness: each learns that his individual tics (a twitchy eye, crackly knuckles, a tendency to sleep with his finger in his face) also afflict the other, and each thinks the other is a total “loser.” Russ sees little Rusty as chubby and spineless, and Rusty sees Russ as dogless and chickless. Though Russ tries to persuade Rusty that his life will improve slightly once he gets past college, Rusty is unconvinced. Where Russ sees his spacious, super-secure, super-moderne home and gorgeous black Porsche as signs that he’s successful, the boy understands intuitively what the man cannot: a lonely, uptight, mean-spirited life is not fun.
And then they bond, each learning the appropriate lesson from the other, and somehow, their life as a continuum is better. There’s something to peculiar, not to say unhealthy and insular, about this relationship: it doesn’t appear to be as wholesome as, say, Adam Sandler’s growth-inducing equal friendship with a more or less real little boy in Big Daddy or better, Tom Cruise’s mostly paternal relationship with his girlfriend’s chatty son in Jerry Maguire.
The man-boy bonding, however you understand it, is inevitable. The character and plot contortions that allow it, however, are unnecessarily unclever. The major device for Russ’s self-development is, no surprise, a girl. Both Rusty and Russ find true love in Russ’s ludicrously patient and suitably childish assistant Amy (Emily Mortimer, who looks way too much like a younger, pre-plasticized Demi Moore). Amy likes to look at the full moon and stroll along the waterfront. And yes, she finds her employer’s cynical attitude less than appealing. But she’s conveniently there, which makes her the likely love object. At the same time, watching her stumble through this relationship, it’s difficult not to fret that she’s getting herself into an impossible emotional situation (not to mention the political mess of intra-office dating). Russ is a hard case. When he goes to a lady-psychiatrist immediately following his first sighting, he refuses to sit (presumably fearing that she will pry into his complex mind and certainly tapping into a generalized public distrust of head-shrinkage) and directs her to give him “powerful medication” so he can get through his busy day. This guy doesn’t have time for hallucinations, much less a romance.
Be that as it may, Amy tries repeatedly to make her boss into the nice person she knows is hiding inside. Every time he even begins to smile, she glows and giggles like it’s a meaningful event (no wonder he likes her). When she meets the child version of Russ, she’s hit the jackpot: the kid is all smiles and cookies and sunshine. Which makes Russ immediately jealous, of course, as he leans into a sweet moment between Amy and Rusty and tells her, “I forbid you to bond with this boy!” Young Breslin has an immensely appealing affect, and a body that finds itself in a variety of winning poses, whether standing in a doorway or sitting cross-legged on the floor while working the tv’s fancy remote control (“Five hundred channels and there’s still nothing on!”). The kid is extraordinarily charismatic. Every time you’re ready to groan at some stupid turn of events, he lets loose with a lovely or even a whiny line reading or slouchy shoulder, and you’re suddenly willing to sit through still more of this nonsense.
Willis, on the other hand, doesn’t seem so comfortable with his role. As is the custom in buddy movies where the opposite partners must change to come together—Russ must begin as a big meanie: he yells at his clients for crying, treats his secretary/life manager Janet (Lily Tomlin, who gets the film’s biggest laugh with, “How’s Mini-You?”) as if she has no life to look after except his, and seems to do nothing but work. Willis can deliver on the malicious side of the character: he only needs to narrow his eyes a bit and purse his lips and you know exactly where you are with him, right back with the yippeekayo motherfucker. But as Russ softens, Willis has a little trouble: his laughter seems strained, his body can’t seem to relax to match the lovely looseness of Russ’s outed inner child.
Still, Willis is a notoriously hard worker, and he struggles mightily, if not exactly nobly, with the many ridiculous situations the script presents. For one thing, there’s an inexplicable subplot involving a tv anchorwoman (the superb and, as usual, pitifully underused Jean Smart) whom Russ cuts off at the knees when he meets her on a plane to LA, and whom he tracks down later, for seriously personal advice concerning his other self. I still haven’t figured out why she’s in the film, or why she, along with Amy and Janet, has no problems accepting that he is indeed living with his 8-year-old self. Perhaps this is a way to suggest that women are closer to their emotions, or more tolerant of eccentricities, or more childish. It’s really hard to say finally what’s going on here, the movie is so continually and fearlessly incoherent. It does offer a grid for masculine happiness: revisit your childhood trauma and get over your father hang-up, find the right girl, and get a dog.