As the kind of kid whose shenanigans can make a nun irreverent - he ties up one Mother Superior and dangles her from the orphanage beams - Junior achieves even greater badness. He is so bad - hey, this kid's pen pal is a serial killer - that badness is thrust upon him, like cat hairs on blue serge.
One part black comedy, two parts mediocre sitcom, Problem Child is a movie that will make kids giggle and their parents gag. Adopted for the 31st time by childless suburbanites Ben and Flo (John Ritter and Amy Yasbeck), Junior behaves as every child would love to - but wouldn't dare.
At a birthday party for a child whose parents Ben and Flo would like to impress, Junior puts a frog in the punchbowl, exploding candles on the cake and a lawn sprinkler in the birthday girl's boudoir. While others deal with the mayhem he has wrought, Junior is busy pitching birthday presents into the pool. If he can't have the gifts, then no one can.
Junior is a creative anarchist, especially when he steals bases in a Little League game by trouncing the infielders with his bat. Screechy-voiced redhead Oliver, an embryonic Groucho Marx, is crudely entertaining in this, director Dennis Dugan's feature debut. (Dugan is better known as the actor who played Cybill Shepherd's husband on Moonlighting and as a director of some of that series' episodes.)
Unfortunately, Junior isn't permitted to be unrepentant. Problem Child's efforts to show that this monster is just a poor, misunderstood tyke dilute the bite of its wicked comedy. We're asked to believe that with some love, this pint-size Attila the Hun would be a little honeybunch.
(To be fair, it's unclear whether this is the fault of Dugan or of rookie scenarists Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. What is definitely Dugan's fault is that this movie looks and sounds haphazard, with car chases and crashes too frequently substituting for punchlines.)
Similarly, the performances of the other players, particularly of the usually engaging Ritter, waver between hard-edged nastiness and soft-hearted sentiment. Every time Problem Child gets an interesting edge, it loses it.
PROBLEM CHILD * *
Produced by Robert Simonds; directed by Dennis Dugan; written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; photography by Peter Lyons Collister; music by Miles Goodman; distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 15 mins.
Ben - John Ritter
Big Ben - Jack Warden
Junior - Michael Oliver
Flo - Amy Yasbeck
Parent's guide: PG (profanity)
Showing at: area theaters