Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1994)

10. Junior

I’m sure there was some validity to the idea, initially. “Hey, people liked “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop!” Let’s get the stars and director back together for one more!” Reasonable enough. Both of Ivan Reitman’s previous collaborations with Arnold Schwarzenegger had easily grasped high concept premises. “Arnold and Danny DeVito are twins!” “Arnold teaches a kindergarten class!” Yet “Junior’s” easily summarized log line is perhaps where the film went wrong. This is a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming pregnant. And giving birth. To a human child. Somebody, somewhere, should have stepped back and said “Hey, Ivan, I’m not so sure about this one!” If “Junior” had even a third of the charm of either of the other two Schwarzenegger/Reitman joints, maybe the film could overcome that awful premise. This is not the case and “Junior” continues to persists as a baffling experiment in nineties comedy.

Dr. Alexander Hesse and Dr. Larry Arbogast, a geneticist and obstetrician, have created a new drug called “Expectane,” meant to prevent miscarriage and make women more fertile. The trials on chimpanzees have been so successful that even a male monkey became pregnant. Yet the F.D.A. hasn’t approved the drug and Alex and Larry are soon kicked out of their lab. Determined to prove the product works, Hesse becomes his own test subject. Expectane works too well and Alexander becomes pregnant, a human embryo growing inside him. The hormonal effect is such that he bonds with the unborn fetus, determined to carry it to term.

By 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become more than willing to embrace the “Tough Guys in Tutus” subgenre, having pioneered it himself. By that point in his career, subversion of his action hero persona were becoming more common than straight examples. “Junior” extends the Tough Guys in Tutus concept far pass its limited breaking point. The film not only has Arnold doing uncharacteristic things, such as wearing brightly colored shirts or chasing after rugrats, but fully emasculates him. The toughest action star in the world gives birth, an act so unmanly that a man can’t physically do it.

If “Junior” set out to poke fun at Arnold’s image or make a statement about gender roles, none of that is evident in the final film. “Junior” is totally devoid of laughs. The film’s idea of a joke seems to be having Arnold simply do something effeminate. For example, he comments on how sensitive pregnancy has made his nipples. Or how soft his skin suddenly is. His voice softens, he becomes overly attached to the child inside him, and demands Larry’s attention in a cutesy manner. There’s no actual jokes here, just simply written scenarios that anyone could have come up with, stripped of any absurdity or chuckles.

The idea of a man giving birth has been explored in fiction before. Thanks to the internet, we now know that some people have even turned it into a fetish. As any mother can attest too, pregnancy and giving birth is not an easy act. To a man, many aspects of birth seem outright horrifying. Truthfully, only a little tinkering is necessary to transform “Junior” into a horror movie. “Junior” too rarely acknowledges the body horror of this scenario. Arnold has a frankly terrifying nightmare in which he is presented with a child with his screaming, scrunched face. In the last act, Dr. Hesse’s child is tangled inside his small intestine. While that raises a truckload of questions, mostly I wonder how literally gut-splittingly painful that must be. Look, I know “Junior” is a comedy. I don’t expect the film to linger on the extensive changes a male body would have to undergo while pregnant. Yet strictly whimsical probably wasn’t the best choice for this story.

My fandom of Arnold Schwarzenegger has come up many times before. There are few performers I find more fascinating. Look at the 1759 words I wrote about “Twins,” many of them devoted to how much I like Arnold’s performance. The man’s charm knows no limits and can, and has, made the most dire material entertaining. The first act of “Junior’ has Arnold affecting an intentionally flat delivery. He is a strict scientist, not well liked by most of his co-workers. After becoming pregnant, Dr. Hesse’s demeanor changes entirely. He is goofy, moody, and emotional. Much of the comedy is devoted to Schwarzenegger’s idea of a “girly man,” mincing and gripping. Look, Arnold is seemingly incapable of being embarrassed by any material. Even with a script as dismal as “Junior,” he remains committed and upbeat. Yet not even the Austrian Oak’s infinite affability is enough to save “Junior.”

Considering how winning the combination was in “Twins,” re-teaming Schwarzenegger and DeVito must have seemed irresistible. “Junior” does not have DeVito expanding too far pass his established persona. Even as a respected doctor, Danny DeVito still plays a bit of a conman. He swipes a female co-worker's cryonically frozen eggs. He seems to relish presenting a sperm donor with a selection of pornography. For a lengthy portion of the film, DeVito believes his ex-wife has been impregnated by a member of Aerosmith, a relatively absurd subplot. These issues aside, Danny and Arnold still share fantastic chemistry. The script may make it look like they’re playing the weirdest gay couple ever but simple scenes of the two chatting have more charm than anything else in the movie.

Emma Thompson is an extraordinarily talented performer, especially in comedy where her effortless combination of effervescent charm and complete lack of fear goes far. Unfortunately, Thompson is not well utilized in “Junior.” Her character is Arnold’s love interest, a scientist whose egg unknowingly provides the baby Schwarzenegger. Yes, she’s the mother of his child. Instead of giving Thompson’s character a real personality, the script makes her massively clumsy. She’s introduced by riding a giant machine into the lab. Later, she tosses a lobster claw across a sea food restaurant. A make-out session with Arnold results in them tumbling over a couch. It’s extremely broad physical comedy, not becoming of Thompson, and gives her little to work with.

Aside from Arnold and DeVito, Reitman would bring back two other actors he had worked with before for “Junior.” As in “Dave,” Frank Langella plays the bad guy. The two parts are very similar. In both films, Langella plays an authority figure that should be reasonable. Instead, he’s a two-dimensional villain, attempting to foil the heroes’ plan for no discernible reason. Langella doesn’t even have as much to do here as he did in “Dave,” as his part is much smaller. Pamela Reed, last seen as Arnold’s partner in “Kindergarten Cop,” appears here as DeVito’s ex-wife. Both characters have a tendency to over-eat, though her character has the excuse of being pregnant. Reed is actually funny, being one of the film’s few bright spots even if she’s basically reprising her “Kindergarten Cop” role.

Like “Kindergarten Cop,” “Junior” is not satisfied with just being a goofball comedy. Instead, the film has an unsightly maudlin streak. As Dr. Hesse hangs out in a clinic for pregnant women, he sniffs flowers. He writes romantic letters back home to Emma Thompson’s character, telling her how much he loves her. The sequence where the baby is born is not play for utterly absurd comedy, as it should’ve been. Instead, the film attempts to play it straight, Arnold struggling during the birth. When the baby is safely delivered, somehow, he holds his child with pride. It’s astonishing that a movie this dumb, this bizarre, would try to play its central gimmick for anything but bemused laughter.

To its benefit, “Junior” does generate one or two laughs, the thinnest wisps of chuckles. Pamela Reed gets most of these. When she gives birth, she happily declares she needs drugs. The biggest laugh in “Junior” have nothing to do with the material and everything to do with Arnold screaming like a madman, something that is inherently hilarious. Such as when he goes into labor and groans “Oh shit!” When visiting the aforementioned clinic, Schwarzenegger goes in drag and pass himself as a former female Olympiad, forever changed by steroids. These are not big laughs and certainly not sophisticated ones. But in a humor barren landscape like “Junior,” you take what you can get.

The musical score for “Junior” is from James Newton Howard, also returning from “Dave.” Howard’s music is as flowery and overblown as his music for Reitman’s previous film. Once again, the composer manages to capture that unmistakable “nineties comedy” sound. “Junior” is, if you can believe this, an Oscar nominated film. The theme song, “Look What Love Has Done,” snagged a nomination for Best Original Song. Sang by Patty Smyth, who should definitely not be confused with Patti Smith, it’s an incredibly earnest pop-romance number. Considering the movie it’s attached to, the incongruity is staggering. The piano-driven melody and Smyth’s throaty vocals are kind of catchy, even if the song itself is fairly generic and the title sounds like a threat.

Amazingly, “Junior” was financially successfully, grossing 106 million against a 60 million dollar budget. The reviews, however, where much less certain. Some critics, including a surprisingly enthusiastic Roger Ebert, liked the film. Others were baffled. Since then, “Junior” has acquired an ironic cult following for being the most miscalculated of Arnold’s forays into comedy. Even as an enthusiastic fan of Schwarzenegger, very little about “Junior” works. It’s creepy, not cute. Off-putting, not charming. Lacking in laughs, not funny. There are many things I’m willing to watch Arnold Schwarzengger do but give birth to a baby is not one of them. [Grade: D]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

I can't look at that poster without thinking 'How Did This Get Made?' podcast.