Falling Down

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/27/06 19:02:25

"He's mad as hell and blah blah whatever."
3 stars (Just Average)

Like most movies designed to be debated on the op-ed page, "Falling Down" doesn't live up to its negative hype. It's been called dangerous and borderline racist, a charge it narrowly deflects by showing one good Hispanic cop for every Hispanic punk, and so on. It has also been called a powerful black comedy, but considering the true classics of black comedy we've produced ("Dr. Strangelove" being the pinnacle), it's an embarrassing assessment -- an indication of how far movies have sunk.

Falling Down, despite some scenes of humor and poignance, is a mess -- a crude, cathartic rant that both condemns and exploits modern paranoia. Director Joel Schumacher (Flatliners) has made a Joe for the '90s, which will seem as overblown and rabble-rousing 20 years from now as Joe seems today.

Michael Douglas, by now an ace at acting out our less acceptable fantasies (Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct), keeps the movie going all by himself. As Bill Foster, a bitter, laid-off defense worker whom the cops nickname D-FENS after his license plate, Douglas wears a brittle brush-cut that makes him look like a No. 2 pencil without the eraser; he also sports glasses whose chunky black frames seem to be squeezing the brains out of his head. For the first reel or so, we're locked inside his anger. When D-FENS sits trapped in a Los Angeles traffic jam, hounded by a buzzing fly and sweating in misery, we feel his prickly frustration; when he abandons his car, it's a sweet release. Douglas, who has always seemed the least relaxed of actors, plays this wordless scene as a pantomime of gut tension.

Once D-FENS goes on the warpath, Falling Down becomes shrill and incoherent. D-FENS plans to go home to his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and celebrate his little daughter's birthday. But everyone in L.A. -- a Korean store-owner who won't give him change for a phone call; two Hispanics who pull knives on him -- stands in his way. Threatened, he lashes out. Is he nuts, or just mad as hell? He keeps insisting on his right as an American to be left alone, but he seems to be looking for convenient targets for his rage. You'd have to get that impression from Douglas' performance, because the script (credited to Ebbe Roe Smith) presents D-FENS as a generally decent guy, prone to temper, who blows off a little steam at people who deserve it. We're meant, I think, to cheer him on even as we recoil. The movie is a cartoon Taxi Driver -- only assholes feel the brunt of the psycho's fury.

In a subplot, a cool-headed desk-jockey cop named Prendergast (Robert Duvall) rides out his last day before an early retirement and finds himself pulled into the vortex of D-FENS' activities. This half of the film is awful, despite an honorable and detailed turn by Duvall. As Prendergast gets deeper into the case, his shrewish, neurotic wife (Tuesday Weld) keeps shrieking at him over the phone. The script provides a plausible reason for her sad craziness (their daughter died at age two), but Schumacher treats her cruelly. Are we meant to sympathize with her, or with Prendergast for putting up with the crazy bitch? Between her and D-FENS, the film seems to say that the best way to handle a mentally ill loved one is to chuckle indulgently or turn your back.

Meanwhile, back on the streets, D-FENS raises the stakes. Toying with a bazooka, he blows up a truck. Offended by a man who wants to use a pay phone, he takes a machine gun and shoots the hell out of that goddamn phone. (That's telling him.) The only person he kills outright is a Nazi surplus-store owner (Frederic Forrest), whose every syllable is a harangue against -- you guessed it -- niggers, queers, and kikes. "You and me are the same," he leers to D-FENS, who looks disgusted. Overwritten and overacted, the character comes along at just the right time to establish that there are bad neo-fascists, who gloat over cans that once held the gas that killed the Jews, and then there are good neo-fascists, who do funny, intelligent things like busting up Korean-owned stores. Falling Down plays it every which way.

Douglas, however, keeps his integrity. In a scene that will no doubt be included in some future Michael Douglas montage on television, Douglas strides into a fast-food joint and orders breakfast. When told that breakfast isn't served after 11:30 (it's 11:34), Douglas puts on a spectacular show of venomous sarcasm and menace; it's like Jack Nicholson's famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, only with firearms. Later, when Prendergast interrupts D-FENS' reunion with his family and D-FENS discovers he can't go home again, we feel a hard stab of compassion when he croaks, "I'm the bad guy? How did that happen?"

The minute D-FENS abandons his car, Douglas seems to abandon the script, with all its cynical murk, and forge ahead to create a character far more deeply imagined than the movie surrounding him.

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