A round of misfires from title to denouement, the new comedy "Modern Problems" is a modern problem for moviegoers: the latest rummy example of that strange abomination, the unfunny "fun" movie, victimized by utter confusion about its genre, tone and audience.
"Modern Problems" may also create irreparable career problems for Chevy Chase, who mugs so desperately in the schnooky starring role that not even network television may be able to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.
Essentially a slapstick farce for juveniles, "Modern Problems" hinges on a supernatural gimmick. Chase is cast as an oversized nerd named Max whose lumpy passivity invites the rest of the world to dump on him. Ironically, an accidental dumping by a chemical truck which exposes Max to radioactive wastes and leaves him with an overnight greenish glow also confers superhuman powers, allowing the worm to turn against assorted nuisances and tormentors with sneaky telekinetic reprisals.
Although Max is identified as an air traffic controller, his profession remains incidental to the plot. There's no indication that the writers -- Tom Sherohman, Arthur Sellers and Ken Shapiro, who was also responsible for the slovenly direction -- bothered to exploit the timeliness of Max's job; it merely amused them to portray the controllers in general as crude, heedless, hungover types who turn their working environment into a littered, noisy playpen. Max's humiliations are associated exclusively with his private life: He has a brash ex-wife, Lorraine (Mary Kay Place), who gets an intolerable kick out of patronizing him, and a girlfriend, Darcy (Patti D'Arbanville), who has just walked out on him.
Darcy is heard complaining about Max's jealous streak at one point, but the evidence suggests that poor Max is too downtrodden to function as anything but a doormat. In a typical exchange Lorraine teases him with a dinner invitation that ends, "Maybe you'll get lucky -- I'm horny," prompting Max to reply morosely, "With my luck I'll get herpes on the way over." This is also a revealing example of how the filmmakers grossly miscalculate their material, imposing a witless layer of supposedly racy small talk on a premise that ought to be aimed at a juvenile public.
Poor Max doesn't get the chance to disappoint his ex, because Lorraine is swept off her feet by one of his old pals (Brian Doyle-Murray), a paraplegic avant-garde publisher named Brian, who jokes about losing his legs in Vietnam during a rendezvous with a hooker. Meanwhile, the estranged Darcy distresses Max by going out with an obnoxious, lecherous acquaintance (Mitch Kreindel), a theatrical producer named Barry.
This outline may suggest that Max himself is a sap of scant appeal. Chase reinforces this impression. He's puffy and listless, a dreary eyesore whose bedraggled presence can't be rationalized adequately by the character he's playing. Chase seems to be degenerating in ways that transcend Max's ostensible problems. He's always looked smug, but now he's also lost the freshness and self-confidence that once put an attractive gloss on his smugness.
After Max acquires telekinetic powers, it becomes gruesomely evident that Shapiro and his co-conspirators have also failed to invent deserving comic objects of a put-upon hero's resentment or situations in which the punishment fits the crime in humorously appropriate terms. For example, you expect Max to play some sort of trick on Barry when the latter turns up escorting Darcy to the same restaurant, but when Max afflicts him with a bloody nose that increases from a trickle to a gusher, and then sniggers at the spectacle, you know that "Modern Problems" is not the work of clever or ingratiating humorists.
Perhaps there's a director somewhere who could leap from a Disney comedy situation to a De Palma thriller shock and make the stunt seem breathtakingly funny, but Shapiro doesn't have the necessary skill. When "Modern Problems" shifts from sluggish to shocking facetiousness, the only effect you're conscious of is brutal misjudgment.
Max is a pathological case who belongs in a horror story -- Carrie transformed into an impotent guy. Perhaps the tackiest joke in the show solicits titters on the basis of Max's very impotence. Having failed to satisfy Darcy with his own feeble exertions, Max resorts to telekinesis to bring her to repeated, ear-splitting orgasm, a trick that initially amuses him, then makes him feel even wormier. This episode blunders onto the likelihood that Max's resentments are focused on the women in his life, but it's an insight with psychologically messy implications -- far too messy for a movie that still aspires to be a mirthful trifle.
Ultimately, "Modern Problems" seems calculated to please only spectators who can take a perverse interest in the way modern Hollywood keeps subsidizing self-inflicted wounds. The most prominent victim of this particular kamikaze entertainment, Chevy Chase will need a miracle to revive his career from the ashes.