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Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday Matinee: Problem Child

In our lifetimes, there comes a time in which sometimes have to put our trust in people, even though we have been hurt so much in our past lives.  How one person can become a lifeline to someone who has never really had one can be the greatest feeling in the world.

Benjamin Healy Jr. was one of those lifelines, only he didn't know it.

Benjamin Healy Jr. was one of the characters in the 1990 movie 'Problem Child', played by the late John Ritter.  In that movie, he and his shrew of a wife Flo (played by Amy Yasbeck, who funnily enough would end up marrying John Ritter for real), wanted to have a child of their own, but for different reasons.

Ben genuinely loved children, and really wanted to become a father.  His wife wanted children for a more self-indulging reason.  She figured that if she had a child, then she could finally be invited to high society dinners and functions.  She was also a gold-digger who only wanted material things from her husband, and basically treated him terribly.  To make Ben's life even more harder, Ben's father, Benjamin Healy Sr. (who went by Big Ben) was in the middle of an election campaign to become the mayor of Cold River.  Although Big Ben had made a fortune through his sporting goods store, he would rather sell his store to Japanese businessmen rather than leave the franchise to his own son, even though his own son has been loyal to the sporting goods store for years.

Basically, Ben is getting the shaft in every way possible.  His marriage is basically on the rocks, his father has pretty much washed his hands of him, and even his neighbours don't really think anything of him.  The frustrating part about this is that it would be perfectly understandable if Ben was an evil calculating mastermind of some dastardly plan where he kidnaps every puppy in North America, but he wasn't.  He was actually one of the nicest people you could meet.

So, Ben figured that if he could conceive a child with Flo, all of his problems would be solved, and that he would finally start getting some respect.  One problem.  Flo was as barren as a dairy supermarket shelf that had just run out of eggs, and therefore was unable to give birth naturally.  So the decision was made to adopt a child.  However, neither Ben or Flo knew exactly what they were getting into when they arrived at the office of Igor Peabody to make the adoption a reality.  I believe this trailer for the film will give you a basic idea.

And that's just all the mischief and trouble that could be shown in a two and a half minute trailer!

Junior (played by Michael Oliver) was abandoned by his birth mother when he was just days old.  Since then, he had been bounced around from home to home (thirty in total) because he proved to be way too much for any family that tried to take him in.  What we don't know is that the only reason Junior causes trouble for people is because he feels that they don't really care about him.  A lot of the people had incredibly self-centered ideals, and basically used Junior to enhance their own lives without even giving him the positive attention that he secretly wanted.  His mean-spiritedness and seemingly evil nature was a defense mechanism for him, because he was too afraid of getting hurt by the selfishness of others.

So when Ben and Flo brought Junior home to live with them, you could only imagine that family number thirty-one would be subjected to the same abuse that plagued the families before him that gave him up when the going got tough.  If you predicted that Junior drove the Healy family nuts the minute he got there, you would be absolutely right.  From making Big Ben fall down a flight of stairs by throwing a cat on his head to sabotaging a camping trip, Ben and Flo certainly had their hands full.  Unbeknownst to Ben and Flo, Junior even had a connection to a very dangerous criminal.  He was a pen pal of Martin Beck (Michael Richards), who was in prison for killing several people.  He was known around Cold River as the 'Bowtie Killer', and as a result, Junior wore a bow tie to be just like him.

Thing is...I can understand why Junior was the way that he was.  He had been abandoned thirty times.  Wouldn't you feel unloved or unwanted if that happened to you?  And it wasn't as if Junior just randomly decided to play pranks or tricks on people just because he could.  There was a reason behind the choice of his victims.

They were all self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic jerks who got off on other people's misery, misfortune, and suffering.  Certainly Flo was a popular target for Junior's abuse, as Junior could see right through her off the bat.  Big Ben Healy was another person who Junior also purposely targetted, which was again, no surprise, since he cared more about getting elected as mayor of the town to satisfy his hunger for power.  And certainly, some of the snobby, stuck-up neighbours got their share as well.  I can remember the scene in which Junior is invited to the sixth birthday party of a neighbour girl named Lucy, who is probably even more spoiled and selfish than her parents.  She is forced to invite Junior to her party by her mother, but instantly bans Junior from attending a magic show at the party, claiming that he touched her presents without her permission.  Rewatching the movie, it was incredibly hurtful, and totally unnecessary.  Of course, Junior got her back, and got her back good.

And before you go on thinking that I'm actually defending this sort of behaviour., I kind of am!  So there!

Of course, I wouldn't advocate blowing up the birthday cake of a six year old, or throwing the presents in the swimming pool, or tossing a bullfrog in the tropical punch.

(Well, okay, I gotta admit, that frog thing was golden, and had I been seven, I would have done the same thing.)

The point I'm trying to make is that I don't condone what Junior did.  I do understand why he did it.  If there was one personality type that I could never tolerate throughout my life, it was people who were so up themselves that they tuned everyone else out.  People who were so selfish that their needs came first before anyone else's.  People who displayed classic schadenfreude, reveling in the misfortune of others.

People like Flo, Big Ben Healy, Lucy, and almost everyone else who had crossed Junior's path.  When someone like Junior was exposed to several people who were cruel, self-absorbed, and who never really had the interest of being a parent for all the right reasons, it's easy to see why Junior lashed out the way that he did.  To put so much faith in someone, hoping that they will take care of you through thick and thin, and then disappointing you is a tough pill to swallow.  A tough pill that poor Junior had to swallow thirty times in only seven years.

Somehow though, Junior didn't seem to scare Little Ben away.  Sure, his pranks annoyed Ben, and at some point during the movie nearly drives Ben into having a nervous breakdown.  But unlike all the other adults in his life at the time, Ben didn't respond with cruelty, sarcasm, or even so much as a menacing grimace.  He treated Junior with kindness, warmth, and even love.  It confused Junior, because he never really had the opportunity to know someone like that.  Even with some of the nastiest pranks that Junior pulled, Ben always was there for Junior, even if Junior tried to push him away.  Junior wasn't sure what Ben's deal was.  Why was he being so nice, when everyone else was so mean to him?

To further solidify the bond between Ben and Junior, Ben could see that Junior was hurt by Lucy's decision to bar him from the magic show at her party (this was before the whole birthday party sabotage), and Ben decided that he would cheer Junior up by giving him his most prized possession.

When Ben handed Junior a prune, Junior was confused as to why he would give him such an unusual present.  Ben explained that the prune belonged to his late grandfather (who claimed that the prune resembled President Roosevelt), and tells Junior that the prune is meant to represent a strong bond between two people.  It was a touching gesture on Ben's part, and for a minute, it almost seemed as if Junior had found the one thing that he had looked for all his life.

But after the birthday party incident, and an incident at a little league game, Ben begins to reconsider ever adopting Ben, and makes the decision to send Junior back to the orphanage.  But after Peabody (Gilbert Gottfried) filled Ben in on how many times Junior had been sent back, he has a change of heart and wants to continue caring for Junior.  But when Junior overhears the initial plan to send him back, he refuses to believe that Ben changed his mind, and ends up taking Flo's car for a joyride through Big Ben's sporting goods store.

The damage to the store is severe, and Ben goes broke paying it off, while Big Ben secretly gloats over his son's own misfortune.  Ben has at this point had it with Junior, and almost is on the brink of having his nerves completely shot when the Bowtie Killer, who had just broken out of prison, arrives at the door of the Healy residence, claiming that Junior is his nephew.  What really happens is that the Bowtie Killer kidnaps both Junior and Flo, and holds them for ransom.  To Ben, this becomes the happiest day of his life.  Not only is Junior out of his life, but he got rid of his harping, shrieking, about to divorce wife as a bonus.  Ben starts throwing everything of Junior's out the window, including some crude drawings of Big Ben and Flo.  But Ben pauses when he picks up a drawing of himself.  Unlike the other drawings, which were crudely drawn and filled with malice, the picture of Ben was very nicely done.  A lot of effort went into making the drawing, and it was filled with bright, warm colours.  Underneath the picture was the prune that Junior had kept wrapped up in a drawer.  It was at this moment that Ben realized that somehow, he had gotten through to Junior, and that Junior really cared for him a lot.

In the last half hour of the film, Ben tries desperately to find Junior and rescue him from the Bowtie Killer.  And, it is here that I will cease this review, given my policy of never revealling a complete and detailed movie ending.  All you need to know is that trapeze artists, a suitcase, a hog farm truck, and that special prune are all featured in the ending, which is a lot sweeter than you'd think, given the tone of the original movie.

I guess if there is any lesson to be learned from the movie Problem Child, it's that nobody is unlovable.  Thirty families tried and failed to incorporate Junior into their families, because they simply didn't try hard enough to get to know him.  They were unable to pierce the brick wall of emotion that surrounded Junior for every day of his seven years of life.  It wasn't until Benjamin Healy Jr. came into Junior's life that things started to improve, not just for Junior, but for Ben himself.  It was Junior that brought joy to Ben's life, and it was his love for Junior that made him see that he didn't need to have a belittling father, a loveless marriage, or snooty neighbours to impress, when all that mattered was the love that he had for a child that he wanted more than anything.

It may not have worked out exactly the way that Ben had planned it, but 31 turned out to be a lucky number for him, and for Junior.  And the very next year, both of them would star in another adventure, where they would meet some very...interesting people.

But that's another movie for another Monday matinee.

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