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Problem Child / Problem Child 2

On the 4th of July weekend in 1991, a whole lot of people went to see part 2s. #1 at the box office was the brand new game-changing action masterpiece TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. #2 was the previous week’s big new release, NAKED GUN 2 1/2: THE SMELL OF FEAR. And then down a couple slots at #5 was the only movie released against T2, Universal’s PG-13 rated kiddy comedy sequel PROBLEM CHILD 2.

P2 would go on to gross an okay $25 million and be #54 at the year’s box office, above such part 2s as FX2, HOUSE PARTY 2, THE NEVERENDING STORY II: THE NEXT CHAPTER, AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST, HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE, KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK and BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME. If there’s one movie on that list that’s worse than PROBLEM CHILD 2 it’s MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE, and I’m not so sure about that.

I did see PROBLEM CHILD back in the day, but I really didn’t remember much, and decided I needed to revisit if before part 2 to have any idea how well they sequelized it. The first film was released less than a year earlier, on July 27, 1990, and was actually a huge hit, making back more than 7 times its budget. It was the feature directing debut of Dennis Dugan, the former child actor who had played Mr. T’s streetwise teen pal in THE TOUGHEST MAN IN THE WORLD. Now Dugan is known for directing Adam Sandler movies (HAPPY GILMORE, BIG DADDY, YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN, GROWN UPS 1-2, JUST GO WITH IT, JACK AND JILL), but at that time he had only directed episodes of Hunter, Wiseguy and Moonlighting.

Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (their first produced script), PROBLEM CHILD is basically a THE BAD SEED type evil child movie played as a cute family movie – a black comedy response to the popularity of movies like PARENTHOOD and UNCLE BUCK. Newcomer Michael Oliver stars as Junior, an obnoxious little shitbag orphan who precociously narrates the story of how he terrorized a series of parents and then all the nuns and kids at an orphanage until they managed to pawn him off on an unsuspecting couple, kind-hearted Ben Healy Jr. (John Ritter right before IT) and his vain, superficial wife Flo (Amy Yasbeck, HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY), who agrees to adopt because “being a parent is power.”

Gilbert Gottfried, on quite a run after BEVERLY HILLS COP II, HOT TO TROT, NEVER ON TUESDAY and THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, plays the guy in charge of adoptions, distractingly called Mr. Peabody. Why not Bullwinkle?

I wasn’t necessarily expecting to say this, but some of the first movie is kind of funny, especially at the beginning. The Universal logo is followed by a dark and stormy night, like a classic horror movie, and Junior jollily narrates, “Nice night to be born, huh? Apparently my birth is not considered a blessed event!” For a while he’s content to torment all the nuns and other orphans, until he realizes that seeming likable could help him find adoptive parents. His solution is to start wearing a bow tie, an idea he gets from seeing a news report about Martin “The Bow Tie Killer” Beck (Michael Richards in his followup to UHF, before Seinfeld had really caught on) and his 34 victims.

Junior sees the serial killer on trial and says, “Gee, what a good lookin guy!” He’s so impressed that he starts sending him fan letters in prison. Beck misunderstands and believes he’s corresponding with a fellow convict named J.R. who really gets him.

Ben is the son and employee of domineering sporting goods store owner/mayoral candidate Big Ben (Jack Warden, THE WHITE BUFFALO). Big Ben is an asshole, but I like that when he first sees Junior acting up he says, “I hope you kept the damn receipt!”

In order to establish that it’s fun what a bad kid Junior is, the movie plays “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Specifically it plays after Junior slides into home plate at his little league game, still holding the bat, ramming the catcher’s balls with it, and chanting “Touch – down! Touch – down!” Of course the song had already been used in CHRISTINE (plus SLAYGROUND, THE COLOR OF MONEY, LETHAL WEAPON, BULL DURHAM, TALK RADIO, and episodes of Who’s the Boss and Married… With Children), but James Cameron always says that he specifically used it in T2 as an homage to PROBLEM CHILD [citation needed].

There’s all kinds of peeing, farting, cats thrown in faces, and a parrot calling John Ritter a dickhead. But I honestly believe there is also some cleverness in this script. Just funny lines here and there, like when Junior is narrating and says, “Those are Roy’s kids. They’re sharin a brain. The one on the end has it today.” Sometimes it does a good job of making you hate the other characters more than Junior, and wanting this little fucker to let chaos reign.

Ritter is very good, as he always was, though Ben’s sincerity here sometimes makes him seem more pathetic than sympathetic. Like, how could he grow to actually like this kid (unless he’s gonna acknowledge that something went wrong psychologically to make him this way and that he deserves help)? Ben becomes more relatable after the Bow Tie Killer kidnaps his wife and kid and he decides to just forget about them. But then he finds a drawing Junior did of him, decides the kid actually likes him and goes to save him through the medium of a wacky car chase.

The movie ends with a pig farting in Flo’s face. I can’t say I respect that artistic choice, but I do respect that it’s only about 75 minutes long. The end credits have a horrible title song by the Beach Boys, who even did a video for it.

And that brings us to PROBLEM CHILD 2, released July 3, 1991. According to screenwriters Alexander & Karaszewski, the studio wanted to replace them, but they also wanted to start filming before Oliver grew too much, so it was easier just to keep them. (The poor kid is a little taller in the sequel, his bowl cut is a little shorter, and he seems a little more overconfident about his joke delivery, despite much weaker material.) In response to all the reviews saying that the first film was tasteless, they tried to make the sequel way more tasteless. But not in a good way, in my opinion.

Dugan was replaced with another rookie feature director, Brian Levant, whose television credits included writing for Happy Days and directing for The New Leave It to Beaver, Married… with Children and Charles in Charge. Yeah, that sounds about right.

In this exciting second chapter, Ben has left Flo, and and he and Junior move across the country to a town called Mortville, which happens to be “the divorcee capital of the world.” There are very few men, so all the female neighbors (more than a dozen) lust after him and bring him pastries. This is very upsetting to Junior, who wants his dad for himself, so he scares away various dating prospects by electrifying the doorbell, dumping his enormous collection of roaches into the salad, etc. Also he films his babysitter having sex and somehow projects it onto the house for the whole neighborhood to watch. The soundtrack repeatedly uses the “Bad to the Bone” riff to represent totally awesome mischief at hand.

Gottfried returns as Mr. Peabody, who somehow switched to being a school principal and coincidentally works at Junior’s new school. He’s so horrified to see him that he assumes he’s a hallucination, so Junior proves he’s real by farting. (?) Other bodily function fun includes a dog peeing on the floor, Junior peeing into a lemonade pitcher, about a dozen people projectile vomiting all over each other at a carnival, the dog taking a shit about seven times as large as himself, and then right before the credits he takes a smaller but still enormous one and the bad guy lady is grossed out by it.

They pull a LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO by introducing a new female problem child named Trixie (Ivyann Schwan, PARENTHOOD [both the movie and the TV series]). She similarly causes havoc so Junior is her rival and they actually make the kid say “The bitch must die” as he stalks her in a restroom. (Then she tries to blow him up with an M-80 but he throws it in the toilet and they run and then a teacher played by James Tolkan from BACK TO THE FUTURE has the shits real bad and runs to the toilet and gets his ass exploded and seems relieved by it but later we see him casually wearing diapers.)

There’s a particularly awful rich neighbor named LaWanda (Laraine Newman, INVADERS FROM MARS) who is trying to make Ben “hubby #7,” and maybe it’s destiny because she for some reason keeps framed photos of her six ex-husbands and they’re all Ritter in different get ups. (Maybe this is some kind of THE SHINING thing?) Ben gets engaged to her because he thinks Junior needs a mother, but he ends up bonding with the angelic school nurse (Yasbeck playing a different character than in part 1) because her daughter is Trixie so they both know what it’s like to be a nice person with no control over a hateful little shitbird kid going around playing Looney Tunes tricks on people.

There are not many redeeming qualities in this sequel but I managed to find two little lines that kinda amused me. In the scene where Junior ruins LaWanda’s dinner with roaches Big Ben asks, “What in the hell is in this salad?” and LaWanda, not having caught on that they’re eating bugs, proudly says, “It’s blue cheese.”

Then there’s a part where Junior tries to hypnotize a dog to hate LaWanda but instead it becomes frozen stiff, and Junior says, “Nippy’s lost his spunk!”

Oh, here’s another one in my notes. Junior steals blood from a dog with rabies to sabotage LaWanda’s marital blood test. So there’s a part where she’s being dragged away yelling, “You cannot do this to me! I am rich! I am powerful! I do not have rabies!”

Maybe you had to be there. But being there might not do the trick either.

Part 2 was followed by the made-for-TV PROBLEM CHILD 3: JUNIOR IN LOVE (1995) and an animated series that lasted from ’93 to ’94. Apparently Ben (not voiced by Ritter) is now the sheriff. Gottfried is the only cast member to return either for part 3 or the cartoon.

Oliver didn’t continue acting for long – he did guest spots on a couple TV shows (Amen, The Munsters Today, Drexell’s Class, Platypus Man) but his only other movie part was in the 1995 DTV movie DILLINGER AND CAPONE. He did not play Dillinger or Capone.

Eric Edwards, who plays a bully named Murph, was next in CANDYMAN and later played Pearl in BLADE.

Ritter and Yasbeck fell in love on the first film, had a daughter together, and were married from 1999 until Ritter’s death in 2003.

Levant followed PROBLEM CHILD 2 with BEETHOVEN, the hit dog movie, so he was able to keep directing. Next he had THE FLINTSTONES, JINGLE ALL THE WAY, THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS, SNOW DOGS, ARE WE THERE YET? and THE SPY NEXT DOOR all in a row before returning to his roots with the unwanted part 2 A CHRISTMAS STORY 2.

As you probly know, the biggest legacy of PROBLEM CHILD and PROBLEM CHILD 2 is that it established screenwriters Alexander & Karaszweski and gave them the motive for their best movie. The stigma of having written such hated movies famously led to their next one being ED WOOD, Tim Burton’s excellent biopic of the supposed “worst director of all time.” Though they have occasionally returned to broad family comedies (THAT DARN CAT, AGENT CODY BANKS) they’re better known for their outsider biopics: THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, MAN ON THE MOON, BIG EYES, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. They also did the pretty good Stephen King adaptation 1408 (an evil fuckin room), the GOOSEBUMPS movie and the excellent limited series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

I’m not asking for this or anything, but I think PROBLEM CHILD would actually be a good candidate for a remake. I honestly think there’s something there where if tuned properly it could be pretty fuckin funny. But I think that neither Dennis Dugan or Brian Levant are directors who are into careful tuning of anything. So all they would need to do would be to write a new screenplay and then find a really great director who is willing to do a remake of PROBLEM CHILD and then convince the world that they would be interested in seeing a remake of PROBLEM CHILD. Should be easy, Hollywood. Get ‘r done.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 20th, 2021 at 7:25 am and is filed under Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Problem Child / Problem Child 2”

  1. I was just rewatching THE NICE GUYS the other night and thinking how Shane Black has a knack for writing precocious kid roles that don’t grate (see also THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT and IRON MAN THREE) and now having read this review I feel confident in saying Shane Black should write and direct the Problem Child remake. Maybe with Patrick Wilson in the Ritter role.

  2. Vern, you are a trooper. Even as a child, I couldn’t make it more than five minutes into these nauseating pieces of shit.

  3. Three things:

    1) The cutaway shot in part 1 of the cat walking with its legs in plaster always makes me laugh for some reason.
    2) The puke scene in part 2 is the CITIZEN KANE of all comedic puke scenes.
    3) The cartoon show was an extreme wtf. I mean, maybe the scripts were good, I don’t know, never watched it. That shit was produced so cheaply, it looked like it was done in Mario Paint! They maybe spent like 50 $ + Gilbert Gottfrieds fee.

  4. Vern, are you on a “Swine Streak”? You went from a movie about a missing pig to one whose last shot is that of a pig experiencing a severe case of diarrhea. Which, by the way, is my only lingering memory of PROBLEM CHILD. PROBLEM CHILD 2, I can’t remember a single thing. I remember thinking Macauley Culkin was a pretty bad actor until the the kid in the PROBLEM CHILD flicks made Culkin look like a little Brando.

  5. Just clicked through an episode of PROBLEM CHILD: THE ANIMATED SERIES; woah CJ aint kidding! Exaggerating *slightly* maybe but not kidding. The cover for the VHS compilation is intriguing though because it looks like Junior (who seems to be a bit older in the show, oddly) is being hassled by a younger junior. I wonder what’s going on there?

    This is another one I recall sampling when it premiered on Sky Movies when I was about 6. I hadn’t seen the first, and we were all pretty disgusted by this; I’m an archetypal 90s kid in a lot of ways but I never shared my generation’s fondness for gross out humour. I seem to recall most of the family gave up, and me and my grandmother(!) kept watching it on our smaller TV for a while, but we gave up after the one scene everyone remembers. I have since seen the original at least twice, once when I was 11 and once when I was 20. Sorry to say, I enjoyed it more when I was 20.

    Nothing against the washing machine motif up there, but it’s the other poster for the first movie, with Junior doing a reverse PARENTHOOD on Ritter and Yasbeck which strikes me as more iconic and very emblematic of a new genre that would be with us for much of the decade. PARENTHOOD was 1989; this is the 90s, the tables are turned and the kid empowerment movement is here! Hope you like gunge, daddio!

    The Juniorverse does have a couple of high profile advocates; Martin Scorcesse reportedly loved the film and definitely has it in CAPE FEAR. Noted Kevin Smith disliker Tom Scharpling is a big fan of the film; I once heard him recount that the writers wanted Part 2 to be shot in Super-8. I do think the writers are a little “playful” with their memories of these films. One of Sharpling’s other favourites is CLIFFORD, intended to be another 1991 release, which took the kid empowerment theme of PROBLEM CHILD to less disgusting but more audience alienating heights.

  6. “The film” in my last paragraph referred to PC1 not PC2 to be clear.

  7. For years, my friend refused to believe me when I tried to tell him that the clip of PC1 in CAPE FEAR was from a real movie, and not some bit of spontaneous surrealist nonsense that Scorsese came up with.

    I have an admitted weakness for Happy Madison films, but I think it should be better known than it is that Dennis Dugan played Richie Brockelman, PI as a recurring role on my beloved ROCKFORD FILES. So now you know it!

  8. Random memory about part 1: Like the rest of the world we were tricked into thinking that this would be a harmless HOME ALONE-esque kids movie, however during the family viewing, the only thing that my mother thought was too much, was the farting pig ass at the end. I think she had some more objections against the weirdness of BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY than any of these two movies.

  9. Vern, it’s a testimony to both your writing and diligent note-taking that I laughed out loud frequently reading this review. Long forgotten scenes now spring vividly to mind thanks to you and a part of me actually wants to revisit these movies. These are dark days and laughter is in short supply and I’ll do anything to tickle the old funny bones. Am actually on a binge of the PINK PANTHER series(only the Peter Sellers ones), and in spite of some horrendously dated racial caricatures, reaffirms Sellers’ genius, a real life PROBLEM MAN-CHILD who was an electrifying comedic savant in front of the camera.

    BTW, am not sure if this scene was in Part 1, 2 or just part of another movie altogether, but didn’t Junior interrupt a sock puppet show he was putting on mid-way and tells the audience “Sorry but I have to scratch my balls”?

  10. I rented PROBLEM CHILD when it was new and I think my dad’s reaction to how bad it was played a substantial role in developing my critical thinking skills. I agree with Vern that some of the orphanage stuff at the beginning is sort of funny, but it’s contemptible whenever it goes for sentiment, and the serial killer commiseration parts should have been an obvious bad idea. But yeah, somehow part 2 is worse.

    CJ – I would agree with you on the puke scene, except it’s consciously trying too hard to one-up STAND BY ME and WITCHES OF EASTWICK on that level. I think a lot of filmmakers of that era misinterpreted how viscerally some viewers will turn against a movie for featuring a projectile puke orgy.

  11. Holy shit I can’t believe you really did this movie but I’m glad you did. When they came out I actually preferred these to the Home Alones because they were just about a rebel kid who never had a saccharine moment of learning to love his family. And the vomit scene did make me laugh.

    I have not revisited them this century, nor have I seen Problem Child 3: Junior In Love.

  12. KayKay, that is in fact the crucial scene in part 2 where Ben runs up to stop Junior from ruining the puppet show only to find that in fact it’s Trixie making the puppets talk about balls, and then he turns to see her mother trying to stop her and perhaps now suspects that he has a soulmate.

    Fred, I was always planning to review them, but you joking about it made me more intent on going through with it.

  13. “I would agree with you on the puke scene, except it’s consciously trying too hard to one-up STAND BY ME and WITCHES OF EASTWICK on that level. I think a lot of filmmakers of that era misinterpreted how viscerally some viewers will turn against a movie for featuring a projectile puke orgy.”

    What? Are you telling me a puke scene that keeps escalating for a good two minutes until it finishes with two parents rhytmically barfing onto their own kid isn’t pure movie magic?

  14. Just Casper’d PC2, or I guess it might be a Casper when he’s in half-real boy mode, because I don’t believe I had ever seen it in full. I like how it starts with a montage to a nice song by Mr PRINCE OF THIEVES himself, making you think it’s going to be one of those nice 80s holdover films like THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY or whatever and not pure muck. Although, and this is kind of obvious to say, it does feel kind of tame 30 years later after so many Farrelly brother derivatives and Alvin the Chipmunk doing a PINK FLAMINGOS (and discussing PINK FLAMINGOS with John Waters in one of the sequels), and the Angry Birds swimming and gargling urine etc. More surprising that Junior says “bitch” a couple of times.

    The exception is the rollercoaster scene. That still has a certain bravado.

    Is Trixie the only attempt to do a girl Dennis the Menace/Bart type on screen? You guys know how we have our own different Dennis the Menace which was in a comic called THE BEANO that was more of a standard kid experience here than DC or Marvel for most or all of the last half of the 20th century? Well that comic also had a female Dennis-type called Minnie the Minx and then another younger one called Ivy the Terrible. And Dennis eventually got a baby sister called Bea who I don’t know enough about TBH but I’m sure she’s got up to some mischief at some point. But while I may be missing something obvious I can’t think of another on screen one, the closest I can think of is Angelica from RUGRATS or Helga from HEY ARNOLD, but that’s not quite the same thing. So that’s something right? On the basis of this film she was a better actor than Junior too. I know child actors are kind of infamous, especially in this period, but it’s kind of amazing that such an unpolished performance was the anchor of a major studio summer franchise for a while. I wonder if the plan was to make PROBLEM CHILD 3 Trixie-centric if PROBLEM CHILD 2-Mania had taken off?

    Also, I listened to Gilbert Gotfried’s 2014 interview with the writers, and I got the Super 8 story wrong. It seems Universal had a Paramount with FRIDAY THE 13th style relationship with the first one, where they liked that it made money (their most profitable movie that year) but were otherwise ashamed of it. According to these guys the Executive in charge of budgeting PC2 suggested shooting it on 16mm because the audience “won’t know the difference”.

    Also Also I should mention that clicking through that episode of the cartoon revealed that it frequently uses faux-Bad to the Bone stingers.

    Also Also Also I like how in the Beach Boys song they start prematurely aging Junior part way through the song so they can start with the Beach Boy/Americana cliches about “the girl next door” etc. At least they weren’t signing about wooden horses I guess.

    Fred; you’re one of two positive scores for PC2 logged with our Tomato overlords! The first has none!

  15. I remember seeing the previews for these flicks (and Ghost Dad) all the time during their respective summers. I was thankfully older than the market for these, so I passed. Plus, despite my unabashed love of Home Alone – which I only recently realized (thanks to Brooklyn 99) that it’s essentially kid Die Hard – the precocious child genre was never my cup of tea. I blame/praise my dad and his avoidance of family films, but had no problem seeing T2 like 4 times.

    Anyway, John Ritter is always great, but I still have not seen any of these, and I salute you, Vern, for taking 2 for the team!

    The one thing I’m grateful for Brian Levant taking on the reins of part 2, is that Dennis Dugan gets to go and direct one of my favorite comedies ever: Brain Donors.

  16. Perhaps a glimpse inside the mind of 13-year-old Franchise Fred is that I was almost equally determined to see PC2 as T2. Almost. I obviously say T2 first and saw it twice. But after the first T2 viewing my mom was saddled with taking my sister and I to PC2.

  17. That’s a good point, Pacman – maybe Trixie is following THELMA & LOUISE and T2 in rethinking how females can be portrayed on film.

  18. “KayKay, that is in fact the crucial scene in part 2 where Ben runs up to stop Junior from ruining the puppet show only to find that in fact it’s Trixie making the puppets talk about balls, and then he turns to see her mother trying to stop her and perhaps now suspects that he has a soulmate.”

    Thanks for the clarification Vern.

    Wow! So it was the GIRL talking about scratching balls???Well, I feel I really need to give PC2 another chance now.

  19. I will always have a soft spot for Problem Child 2 because it absolutely gives NO FUCKS what so ever. I saw it in the theater with my brother when we were 11 and 12 and even then I felt it had this energy toward the audience that Junior has towards society in the film. Years later I heard the writers on Gilbert Godfried’s podcast say that because the studio didn’t want them back but were going with them anyway inspired them to purposely make a chaotic movie, citing Passolini and John Waters films as inspiration, even making a sign in their office that said “Passolini for Kids” on it while they were writing the script. The vomit scene alone is a thing of beauty, especially when it goes from a shot of a concession stand worker vomiting on the glass from inside the stand to two parents both puking on their child.

  20. So…they have a film called Problem Child, decide to have a “title song” included in the soundtrack, but don’t use the already existing (and nowhere NEAR as overused as the Thorogood track) song by AC/DC? Instead they use a “new” song by a band already three years past it’s “one-off revival hit”? Yikes…

  21. If it were made today they would use the AC\DC song, but it would be a cover by Serj Tankian or someone and the score composer. It’s up to you if that would be an improvement.

  22. With Serj Tankian? Improvement!

    Although something tells me it would be more of a “DJ Khaled feat Pitbull” kind of cover in 2021

  23. I don’t think Pitbull has had a hit since the Obama era, so he probably would be something a Hollywood exec thinks “the kids listen to”. Always found him strangely lovable TBH.

  24. As good as anyplace to say it I guess. R.I.P. to Gilbert Gottfried. I highly recommend the documentary GILBERT. I love him. If Howard Stern hadn’t mentioned him today I would have been pissed. He did though. He was on the show 122 times.

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