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‘Problem Child’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 28, 1990

He's bad. He puts laundry detergent in the kitty dish. Firecrackers in the birthday cake. The vacuum hose in the goldfish bowl.

Eyeing a nun at the adoption home where he lives, he says, "I wonder if penguins can fly," and moments later, he has her swinging from a rope outside the classroom window. When he gets a single in his Little League game, he stretches it into a home run. Don't ask how.

Bad to the bone.

His name is Junior, he's 7, and nobody wants him. In Dennis Dugan's intermittently hilarious "Problem Child," he makes Dennis the Menace look like Mister Rogers -- he's Dennis the Terminator.

He was left on a doorstep as an infant on a dark and stormy night, and since then he's been shuttled from one home to another. Thirty times he's been tossed back into the adoption pond until he ends up with the nuns. And even they toss him back. Only a poor unsuspecting couple so desperate for a kid, and in such a hurry to get one that they'd accept anything, would take him. Enter the Healys. Ben Healy (John Ritter), who's a sweater-under-the-sport-coat kind of guy, has baby lust in the worst way, but Flo (Amy Yasbeck) has "mechanical problems," or so the doctor tells them. Ben wants a son to go camping with, to take to the ballpark, and when Junior is offered by the adoption agent (played with sniveling glee by Gilbert Gottfried), he jumps at the chance.

Pretty soon the house is on fire, Ben's father (Jack Warden) is being driven off in an ambulance, and the family cat is bandaged up like a mummy. "We've adopted Satan," Ben concludes. The movie, which was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, has an anarchic rambunctiousness. It lays waste to everything in its path, sometimes crudely but never stupidly.

Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well, so that there's still some surprise in the punch lines when they come. There are a lot of directors making comedies who know a lot less about how to do it than he does -- some of them renowned and quite successful. Most of them, however, have better material to work with than this. Essentially, the problem here is the same as the problem in "Gremlins 2." It's basically about tearing stuff up, and after a while you grow tired of seeing variations on the same joke of a cute kid committing horrible atrocities.

Ritter is ideally suited to his role here. After Junior subjects his dad to an unrelenting onslaught of egregious behavior, the man still seems to love him. Junior has never been the object of this sort of kindness before, and it puzzles him: "What is this guy, nice or something?" Yes, he is, in an unshakable, bedrock way, and this trait anchors the movie and keeps it from turning sour.

Michael Oliver, who plays Junior, is a resourceful little performer but slightly scary in the way that immensely self-possessed child actors often are. As Ben's grasping, status-obsessed wife, Yasbeck is marvelously shallow, and Gottfried does some wicked riffing as the adoption agent. When Junior says he wants to grow up to be a priest, the agent does everything in his power to sell the idea to the white-faced nuns. "A priest is good," he says. "A priest is, like, a nun with a jacket. A boy nun. He wants to be a boy nun." This kind of craziness we could use more of.

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