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‘Falling Down’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 26, 1993


Joel Schumacher
Michael Douglas;
Robert Duvall;
Barbara Hershey;
Rachel Ticotin;
Frederic Forrest;
Tuesday Weld;
Lois Smith
Under 17 restricted

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In "Falling Down," crew-cut Michael Douglas is a clockwork citizen, an average Joe with a bar code on the back of his neck. He's the ain't-gonna-take-itanymore taxpayer in all of us, harassed daily by the system he has bought into. As he fumes through yet another L.A. traffic jam, the frustration factor finally boils over.

"Where are you going?" an appalled driver asks, as Douglas climbs out of his car. "I'm going home," replies the fired military-defense firm employee, briefcase in hand.

In director Joel Schumacher's dark comedy, Douglas's simple intention is to make it to his daughter's birthday party. But the route he takes is blocked by gun-toting nutcases, rip-off artists, bigots and the economically disenfranchised. Like Griffin Dunne in "After Hours," he's about to undergo the paranoid epic of his life. Luckily, he's armed with middle-class rage.

For starters, there's the Korean grocer who charges 85 cents for a soft drink and won't give him change for the phone. A baseball bat helps assuage Douglas's anger. When he's accosted by barrio boys, Douglas's briefcase comes in handy. After another confrontation with the same gang, Douglas emerges triumphant again, this time with their bag of monster weaponry in hand.

Actually, Douglas's "home" turns out to be fictional, since ex-wife Barbara Hershey has a restraining order against him. But his mind is fixed. In Nietzschean fashion, his beeline there becomes, with each altercation, increasingly psychotic. Now the cops -- including soon-to-retire Robert Duvall -- are in pursuit. Douglas has a deadly run-in with neo-Nazi Frederic Forrest. And, upon reentering the wealthy zone, he decides that a country-club golf course is a waste of beautiful land.

The movie's sense of direction isn't quite as straightforward. By midpoint, it faces a crisis of options. How serious an indictment of society should it be? Is it a thriller with funny elements, or a comedy that turns increasingly black? Does Douglas get "saved" at the end, or does he go to the nutso-limit?

First-time screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith seems to want a bit of everything -- to the movie's eventual detriment. After a while, Douglas's homeward-bound intentions become an abstract endgame, something to bring the movie to a narrative halt.

Deskbound officer Duvall, who's dreading quiet days in Arizona with neurotic wife Tuesday Weld, uses Douglas's blitzkrieg for his own call to arms. The trouble is, he spends too much of the movie apart from Douglas, always a step or two behind. The chemistry that could have happened between the movie's two heavy-hitting performers isn't allowed to happen until the finale. There's a roughly similar relationship in "Thelma & Louise" between cop Harvey Keitel and fugitives Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Tracking the women across the country by phone, Keitel strikes up an increasingly affecting relationship with them. It seems the same thing is meant to happen in "Falling Down." It doesn't.

However, Douglas's intentionally robotic -- and intense -- performance holds its own. He's scary, normal and funny all at once, as he goes to town on that grocer's overpriced merchandise, or stands up to the street hoods with almost clock-whirring deliberation.

"That's a helluva way to treat a vet," says a homeless person after Douglas refuses to help him out.

"You're an animal doctor?" asks Douglas with genuine surprise. In the middle of this one-dimensional, RoboCitizen rampage, Douglas's endearingly naive question is one of the movie's more beautifully played flickerings of humanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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