'Problem Child' (1990): Junior Was Not a Problem
Problem Child is a 1990 comedy film, starring John Ritter (of Three's Company fame) and Michael Oliver as Junior.
Problem Child has been one of my favorite movies for as long as I can remember, not just because it's a hilarious film but also because of its heartwarming message. The theme of the story can be summed up in this quote:
"The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become."
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You ever have someone assume the very worst of you the second they meet you? Then they treat you terribly, and when you are hurt and retaliate, they behave as if your very rational hurt was proof that you were terrible all along. Then they go on treating you terribly. All of this because they made an assumption and were rude to you first!
This has happened to me too many times to count. It's no wonder, then, that I identified with Junior as a child: my experiences with judgmental assholes are the sum of Junior's experiences.
The film opens by showing us how Junior (Michael Oliver) has been passed from house to house since the night he was born. He is presented as some kind of demon spawn, but the reality is, he's not a bad boy. Junior is just reacting to the rejection, condescension, and abuse he's had to contend with since his first breath.
Each person Junior is left with abuses him in some way. Whenever he lashes out, he is dumped once again on another doorstep. One adopted father carelessly and unapologetically steps on Junior's toys and crushes them without a backward glance. . . .
. . .so Junior crushes his house with a bulldozer.
Junior actually has self-esteem. He likes himself. And that means he isn't going to take shit from anyone. If someone hurts him, he is going to hurt back, and he's going to hurt back hard.
For some reason, sticking up for yourself and not taking anyone's crap is something that's looked down upon by most people, even though they pretend otherwise. A lot of people think they have a right to go around treating other people badly, and when they discover they can't, they retreat into playing the victim.
Most people will act as if you are a bad person because they are too cowardly to admit they treated you wrong and just apologize. Junior, unfortunately for him, is surrounded by nothing but these sorts of assholes -- people who talk down to him, abuse him, and punish him for defending himself.
At the orphanage where he's finally dropped off, the nuns treat Junior just as badly as everyone else has. No doubt they've heard stories of him being a terrible person, so when he arrives at the orphanage, they treat him like a terrible person.
You can't treat someone like they're awful and then expect them to not rebel against this negative and unfair judgment. I mean, damn.
Every time the nuns are cruel to Junior, he lashes out, culminating in an incident where the most antagonistic nun is sent flying through the air and into a dumpster, breaking her arm. This is the final straw and the nuns decide to kick Junior out of the orphanage.
The nuns threaten the adoption agent (Gilbert Gottfried), who becomes desperate and decides to trick an unsuspecting couple into adopting Junior.
That unsuspecting couple is Ben (John Ritter) and Flo Healy (Amy Yasbeck). Both of them are infertile and are desperate for a child. Flo initially wants a baby -- that is, until the adoption agent casually reminds her of all the sleepless nights of burping and feeding and getting covered in baby puke. She and Ben then decide that adopting Junior is best.
Ben is the epitome of the stereotypical doormat. He is utterly, utterly nice. He's not judgmental. He's not mean. He's not condescending. He has a big heart and a ton of patience. He is basically everything a love-deprived boy like Junior needs.
But Ben's problem is that he's a little too nice. Unlike Junior, he allows people to bully him. He's been working at his father's sporting goods store his entire life, slaving away without a single promotion or so much as a "Bless you" should he sneeze, and sits there with barely an angry retort when his father announces that he's selling his company to the Japanese.
Ben's father, Big Ben (Jack Warden), even tells him straight-up that he's just too nice. In other words, he is selling his company rather than giving it to Ben because he knows Ben won't put up a fight.
Ben's doormat nature is further underscored by his marriage to Flo. Flo is a lot like Big Ben -- which is probably why Little Ben married her. She is loud, bossy, domineering, and demanding. She doesn't care about anything but money and social climbing and seems to have married Ben simply because he's as easily controlled as her pets.
The first twenty minutes of the film clearly sets up Ben and Junior as two people who can teach each other: Ben can teach Junior that not everyone is against him, while Junior can teach Ben how to stand up for himself when the need arises.
Ben calls Big Ben over to surprise him, and Big Ben goes into a rant the second he steps in the front door. First he calls Flo fat, then he asks if Ben got to actually sleep with his "surrogate mother" while cackling in front of Flo, then he loudly shouts about what a bad idea it is to adopt -- all of this while Junior is upstairs within earshot.
What a f****** asshole.
Junior's feelings are hurt, so he destroys one of the many electric clowns in his bedroom and starts a fire -- perhaps to test how much Ben and Flo care about him.
Ben passes the test. Horrified by the fire, he lunges into the room and saves Junior, putting out the fire with his father's coat. Meanwhile, Big Ben is more concerned about his expensive coat and reprimands his son for putting the fire out with it.
As Junior steps out of the smoke, Big Ben gasps, "My god, it's the Devil."
As if Junior's feelings weren't hurt enough.
Junior pretends to be frightened by the fire (to play on Little Ben's feelings and to keep out of trouble) and Big Ben calls him out with, "The little punk is lying!"
Big Ben then goes on to declare that his son is going to regret adopting and he hopes he "kept the receipt" because he's not setting another foot in his son's house until Junior is gone. As he is speaking, Junior throws the cat at his face, and he falls down the stairs while trying to fight it off.
Honestly? Old man got what he deserved. Who treats a child like that? He didn't even care if Junior burned alive in the fire! Junior basically did what Little Ben should have done when he was a child, rather than put up with his father's constant emotional abuse.
Meanwhile, juxtaposed against Junior's mischief are the adventures of a psycho prisoner.
Like most children who feel isolated and misunderstood, Junior reaches out to the wrong person. His pen pal is Martin Beck (Michaels Richards), the "Bow Tie Killer," a hardened criminal who mistakes Junior's name for the initials "J.R."
He thinks Junior is a criminal like him and that the two of them are going to meet up and go on a crime spree. He breaks out of prison, intent on meeting Junior on the outside.
One night, Ben catches Junior riffling through Flo's drawers. This leads them both to discover Flo's lady porn.
The entire scene is hilarious and it's a foreshadowing to Flo's eventual cheating. Looking at porn and naked pictures of other people -- basically, seeking physical gratification outside your partner -- while you're in a monogamous relationship is cheating mentally. Actually having sex with someone else is cheating physically. Also, two plus two is four.
The scene demonstrates that Flo has no interest in and no respect for her husband and her marriage. It should hardly be surprising later when she sleeps with the Bow Tie Killer.
Ben then takes Junior downstairs and makes him hot cocoa. He talks about being nervous about being a father, and Junior's response tugs some heartstrings. He tells Ben that the moment he finds out what it's like to be a father, he'll get rid of him.
The fact that Junior insists on calling Ben "Mr. Healy" instead of "Dad" also shows how much he fully expects to be dumped back at the orphanage. He has been abandoned so many times, the indications of the scene are heartbreaking.
Ben is appalled and swears that he'll never get rid of Junior because he really wants to be a good father. He talks about fishing and camping trips and promises that he'll always be there for Junior.
Damn. He is basically the perfect dad. Junior is so, so lucky.
The very next day, Junior has to contend with yet more assholes. While preparing to set out on a camping trip with the Healys, he meets a little girl named Lucy (Colby Kline). Without even greeting Junior or pretending to be nice, she immediately calls him "gross" and disgusting because he's adopted and announces that he's not welcome to her birthday party.
What a horrid little girl.
The camera gives us a shot of Junior's hurt expression as Ben sympathetically pats his hair. Thankfully, Lucy's mother is actually a nice woman and reprimands her daughter, but the damage is done.
Ben's friend, Roy (Peter Jurasik), turns out to be a real prick -- pretty much like everyone else in Ben's life. And -- like everyone else in Ben's life -- Ben lets Roy walk all over him in their faux friendship.
What Ben and Roy have is actually a codependency: Roy abuses Ben to feel good about himself, knowing he can get away with it because Ben is lonely and wants a friend. They each take something superficial from each other and maintain their "friendship" for years, regardless of how harmful the relationship actually is for Ben.
Roy constantly, openly brags about his many children, knowing that Ben is infertile and wants a son more than anything in the world. He does this on purpose to uplift himself. It's emotional abuse, and Ben just lets it happen.
At the campsite, Ben and Junior are given a spot beside the porta potties and a dumpster by Roy, who can't seem to get enough of dragging Ben through the mud on his face. Roy even brags about his campsite being on the river.
Roy's kids are also mean to Junior, so I don't feel the least bit sorry for them when Junior leads a bear into their camp and it scares the crap out of them.
Unfortunately, Ben gets caught in the crossfire of Junior's prank and could have been killed by the bear. Thankfully, he wasn't. The bear throws Ben aside and leaves the camp.
Then Roy shows up in a bear costume, and Ben bangs him on the head with a frying pan, thinking he's the real bear. And serves that asshole right.
The entire scene might have been funny if it didn't push my suspension of disbelief. These people really couldn't tell the difference between a man in a costume and a real bear? Really?
Junior attends Lucy's birthday party with the Healys, and Lucy continues to be mean to him. First she belittles him in front of her equally mean friends, then she tells Junior he can't watch the magic show and that he has to stay inside.
Ben notices that Junior has been left out and gives him a family heirloom to make him feel better. The heirloom is an old petrified prune that Ben's grandfather gave to him on his deathbed. Junior accepts the gift -- and then proceeds to destroy Lucy's party.
Junior throws Lucy's presents into the pool, cuts her friend's hair, floods her bedroom with a hose and sprinkler, puts a frog in the punch bowl, sabotages the pinata, and blows up her birthday cake, covering all the guests in icing.
Does anyone honestly feel sorry for Lucy, though? She's horrible. Though I do feel a bit sorry for some of the guests.
Later at home, an angry Flo tells Ben to spank Junior and pointedly hands him her brush. Having overhead, Junior makes sure to be on his knees praying about what a great father Ben is just as Ben walks in his bedroom. Hearing the prayer, Ben decides not to spank Junior and instead takes back his one dollar allowance and sends him to bed early.
Junior, like everyone else in the film, knows that Ben can easily be manipulated, but as Ben turns out the light and closes the door, he realizes for the first time that Ben is sincerely nice and that perhaps he doesn't deserve it.
Ben coaches for the sports company's baseball team and Junior participates in a game. The opposing team belongs to Roy, who smiles and nods like a jackass as his players start chanting insults at Junior. All of them tease and mock both Junior and his adopted father, triggering such rage in Junior that he beats every member of the opposing team with his bat as he runs from base to base.
Junior assaults all of them for insulting his adopted father, then finishes up by ramming his bat into the nuts of the most antagonistic player.
As Ben watches in horror, he mutters, "We've adopted Satan!"
If anything, though. Junior's rage against the other players shows that he now cares about Ben and is willing to defend him as much as he is willing to defend himself.
Junior only pranks people who have done him some personal harm. The thing is, though, that his rage tends to go a wee bit overboard, and innocent bystanders are always caught in the crossfire.
Yes, those kids were pricks, but they didn't deserve to be assaulted. Junior himself isn't a problem, but years of emotional isolation and abuse have given him anger problems.
The Healys immediately run to church, where Ben confesses that everyone hates Junior and that he himself has given up trying to make Junior love him. He has decided to return Junior to the adoption agency.
He says all this never realizing that Junior is inside the confessional and is listening.
Back at the agency, Ben and Flo get into an argument with the adoption agent. They accuse him of tricking them, and then the agent screams at the top of his voice, "What am I supposed to do? The little creep's been returned thirty times!!!"
Ben then realizes that Junior is misbehaving because he thinks no one loves him. He then becomes determined to love Junior no matter what, even though Flo is against it and hilariously screams, "That kid's a monster!"
They return to the car to find Junior in tears, it now being apparent that he loves Ben and is hurt by the fact that he was giving him up.
"You said you would keep me forever! You only pretended to be my friend! You're just like all the others!" Junior screams before starting the car and driving off.
Ben winds up on top of the car as Junior drives it through the front window of Big Ben's sporting goods store. (Haha! Another strike against Big Ben!)
Now convinced Junior is demon possessed, the Healys are battle weary and defeated and don't know what to do. To make matters worse, Ben receives a phone call that his father has cleaned out his savings in order to pay for the damage to his store.
A stressed out Ben nearly smothers Junior with a pillow when Martin Beck arrives on the doorstep. Beck is angry to realize he drove a thousand miles to hang out with a kid. Junior is excited and lies to Ben and Flo, pretending as if Beck is his uncle.
Flo is ecstatic, thinking they can pawn Junior off on him. She butters up Beck all night and winds up sleeping with him in the kitchen (after he assaults her with a sudden kiss), while Ben sits at the table in a stupor, having had a complete meltdown.
Ben has had such a meltdown that it takes him a while to realize both Flo and Junior have been kidnapped for ransom by the Bow Tie Killer.
At first, Ben is happy about it. He dances around his house and shouts in joy, grateful that his wife and son are gone. If he hated his wife so much, it makes you wonder why he would bother staying with her. Why did he feel so obligated to be unhappy?
Eventually, however, Ben goes through Junior's drawers and finds a picture that the boy drew of him. In that moment, he realizes that Junior doesn't hate him at all -- Junior loves him.
Ben becomes determined to save the boy and goes to his father for help. Big Ben -- surprise, surprise -- refuses to lend his son the ransom money, calling him a credit risk.
For the first time in his life, Ben stands up to his father. He sabotages his campaign by turning on the camera as he tells his father to state his true intentions. Unaware that he is live, Big Ben gives a damning speech about how he doesn't care about America, before unwittingly mooning the camera with his pointy-cheeked ass.
So Ben goes to rescue his son by himself. He and Junior work together as a team and manage to get the Bow Tie Killer arrested. Ben is shot by Beck but survives because he was carrying the petrified prune in his chest pocket. Meanwhile, Flo -- who has been stuffed in a suitcase by Beck -- is carried away on a pig truck.
After the crazy chase scene, Ben and Junior reunite, finally father and son, both having learned their lessons. Ben has learned to stand up for himself and his loved ones, while Junior has learned that the whole world isn't against him, that there are good people out there who can love him.
And that he isn't a problem child after all.
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