(SPOILERS) Did Joel Schumacher, who died last month, ever make a classic movie? There are those who will go to bat for The Lost Boys, but “cult classic” is something of an eclectic beast (in that it doesn’t actually need to be a great movie, per se). I’m not convinced he did, but there was a spell there, for about a decade following Flatliners – yes, even after Batman & Robin – when I’d eagerly check out his latest picture, confident that his energised approach would at least offer something. Falling Down is a very flawed picture, but it’s also a highly entertaining and occasionally inspired one; like most of the director’s work, it’s very slick, but it also, less commonly in his oeuvre, has something to say. Even if that something is occasionally muddled, garbled and nervous about the hornet’s nest it’s kicking in semi-reactionary fashion.
Is it Schumacher’s best? It’s probably Falling Down or Phone Booth (although there are a few of his I’ve yet to see, most notably The Phantom of the Opera). And I remember being very high on it when it first came out (I might even have seen it twice at the cinema). I think the middle-class white male angst wish-fulfilment satire tickled me most, even if it now seems a little too unvarnished in that department: a brainstormed list of beefs and gripes strung into a narrative. I recently saw it described as a mash-up of The Swimmer and Taxi Driver, which I thought was quite amusing, even if that gives it a little more credit than it deserves.
A lot of shit is thrown Falling Down’s way, though, often ascribing it the perspective of its lead character. That it’s an ignorant, angry white male fantasy, which it clearly isn’t. Simultaneously, though, our protagonist is also our antagonist (albeit, there are two protagonists, but anyway), so we have to be able to identify with why he’s angry, and with what has lit his fuse, so we can engage with the release of his reacting against all the dumb things society throws his way, and also recognise where he has “gone too far”.
The picture’s biggest problem, really, is not that it isn’t sufficiently clever – it knows, first and foremost, that it’s a popcorn movie, just one with something going on under the hood, like most of Michael Douglas’ fare from that period, for better or worse – but that it pulls its punches. It bears the signature of execs worried about how it will be received. Hence, the really very lame moral lesson delivered by Duvall’s retiring cop Prendergast when he finally catches up with Douglas’ D-Fens: “You’re angry because you got lied to?”
It’s evidence, if there hadn’t been evidence enough by this point, that for every occasion Falling Down credits its audience with enough intelligence to come along for the ride, it has another instance where it loses all confidence in them. The emotional journey of Prendergast, rather than D-Fens, is the most glaring example of this, but a close second is the latter’s encounter with Frederic Forrest’s racist, homophobic, likely-closeted neo-Nazi. The scene itself is a highly effective, tense one, largely due to Forrest’s splenetic performance, but it’s entirely motivated to show that D-Fens, whatever his prejudices and hang-ups and loco-ness, isn’t as bad (even then, the makers are still keen to push the relative values; D-Fens dismisses Nick as a “sick asshole”, and “sick” is exactly how Barbara Hershey’s ex-wife Beth later labels him).
The picture’s ability to yo-yo in sympathies with yo-yo D-Fens, depending on the scene, shouldn’t be underestimated, because that’s exactly its intent. The AV Club’s 2012 Our Most Hated Movies of the 90s called it a “tone-deaf, self-pitying lament”, which seems to derive from the idea that one cannot hold two simultaneous ideas at once (D-Fens can’t be both the villain and be identified with in any way). So AV Club was ahead of the curve for the broader societal mood’s inability to perceive shades of grey there. Again, though, I’m not necessarily suggesting Falling Down succeeds in its mission. Rather, some of the things its sometimes accused of (such as its makers not knowing it was funny) are plain ridiculous.
Douglas’ vehicles for the exploration of the middle-aged, middle-class white male may not always have been the most adroit, from his sexually-harassed rape victim in Disclosure to his obsessive detective sporting lesbian-enticing v-neck sweaters in Basic Instinct to his self-involved banker in Fincher’s muddled The Game, but they did evidence a star keen to tackle provocative material, and not necessarily portray himself in a positive light. Indeed, far from being a “hero” Douglas is often seen bringing the squirmy, inept guy to the fore, with the kind of moves he was making in The War of the Roses (where, like here, he very much comes off worst); he’s a pretty good comedy actor when given a chance, quite happy to mock himself for all his posturing in some movies (Black Rain is a particularly egregious example, illustrating that he was never a good fit for classic action hero posturing).
Yes, the movie flirts with making D-Fens cool at various moments. It’s inherent in being mad as hell and not taking it any more. It is cool when he doesn’t back down from the gang members in an almost brazenly clueless fashion (“This is a gangland thing, isn’t it?”) And it’s cool when he fails to notice the hail of bullets miraculously missing him when he’s at a payphone. It’s cool when he punches out the abusive driver in the traffic jam. And it’s cool when he waxes self-righteous on the golf course. And his unrepentant stance to the rich guy he gives a heart attack is quite funny (“Well, I guess you’re out of luck, aren’t you?” lectures D-Fens, the player’s life-saving pills stowed in the golf cart D-Fens just sent into the lake).
But that scene illustrates the degree to which the makers’ minds were aware of what they could and could not get away with. It’s transparently clear that the two deaths D-Fens is responsible for, directly or indirectly – you might include the gang car crash, but he’s entirely oblivious of the events leading up to it – are ones the makers know are “okay”. The audience will see the rich golfer “wearing that stupid little hat” getting what he deserves. The same with Forrest’s neo-Nazi; the latter is set up as the movie’s biggest crowd-pleasing moment, but I think it’s one of its biggest errors in character terms. Yes, you can argue D-Fens is enraged by the “We’re the same” suggestion, but he’s already stabbed the guy and the picture really hasn’t earned the leap to making him a cold-blooded killer. It’s an action-movie beat.
Particularly so because, in most instances where D-Fens goes way too far, the movie is on side with the idea he’s gone way too far. Right from the start, with the Korean shopkeeper Mr Lee (Michael Paul Chan), he is characterised as indulging the broadest of knee-jerk stereotyping of immigrants (“You come to my country, you take my money, you don’t even have the grace to speak my language”), before being called up on exactly this rhetoric (“I don’t know, but a lot” he has to admit when Lee asks how much money the US has lent Korea over the years).
And while there may be audience recognition for the over-priced soda, there ought to be instant rejection of the violence in smashing up Lee’s shop. It’s the same with possibly the most iconic scene – certainly the one that received the most airing at the time – in the Whammy Burger. The “Can anybody tell me what's wrong with this picture?” rant is amusing and Dedee Pfeiffer is a delight as the not-terrified waitress, but there’s never any doubt that a lunatic is running rampant in a fast-food restaurant, firing off an Uzi because he can’t get his breakfast (and then, hilariously, he changes his mind, so the whole thing was unnecessary).
As amusing as these set pieces are, revisiting Falling Down serves to emphasise how thoroughly – and shamelessly – scattershot actor-turned-writer Ebbe Roe Smith’s screenplay is in its targets (Smith has one other writing credit for the big screen, the probably best forgotten Car, 54 Where Are You?) That same burger scene has some rather aimless shtick about name tags that’s closer to the stuff of a stand-up routine. Likewise, the guy pestering D-Fens for cash when he’s being entirely obvious about not needing any is far too telegraphed.
There is a loose progression as D-Fens happens upon rich neighbourhoods (again terrifying those he encounters, this time the family of a caretaker making use of a pool), but in contrast to The Swimmer, this rather serves to emphasise a schematic quality; Schumacher was never a director who, except perhaps in his most pop-promo, ‘80s sense, could make more of material than was on the page (I was going to use the 8mm/Seven comparison, but I think that one’s down Andrew Kevin Walker writing something terrible rather than simply David Fincher’s virtuosity).
As has been noted, it’s very evident very early on that we’re supposed to have strictly limited sympathy for D-Fens. It’s clear he’s not just an unhinged guy but one who’s a potential danger to his family, announcing to Beth “I’m coming home’ for his daughter’s birthday. Some of this is overcooked – notably the reveal that he’s maintained the ritual of going to work even after he’s lost his job, and the OTT home video illustrating him losing it – but there’s some smart material here too. The cop sceptical of Beth because D-Fens never actually got violent with her (“I didn’t want to wait until he got around to it”). And his confession to the caretaker that “I’m over-educated, under-skilled. Maybe it’s the other way around. I forget” is one of the picture’s best lines; the argument that the angry white man trope is redundant in and of itself is effectively emphasised by the attempts to smooth over any ruffled feathers – Prendergast dismissing D-Fens’ complaints – and illustrates the same lack of empathy that marks out perspective of the picture’s protagonist/antagonist.
Duvall is as important to Falling Down’s structure as Douglas, but he’s completely overshadowed by some incredibly laborious characterisation. There are some gems here, undoubtedly, and some nice juxtapositions too. My favourite is probably Prendergast showing his softly-softly caring approach in manoeuvring Lois Smith (as D-Fens’ mother) to open up about her son by asking her about her figurines, which include a charming giraffe drinking. The cutting parallels this with D-Fens’ gloating tirade to a dying man on the golf course. D-Fens is the worm who turns apeshit, while Prendergast is the worm required to turn in a just sufficiently societally acceptable way. He’s guilty of the same stereotyping D-Fens is (he assumes Japanese Brian is Korean; actor Steve Park is Korean, so maybe Brian was being sarcastic and it went above my head – he’s shown speaking Korean too) and finds himself similarly obsolete. His department is also composed of the biggest assholes ever – Rachel Ticotin excepted – and his captain (Raymond J Barry) is especially loathsome, even by their standards.
The picture pushes this so relentlessly, and so cartoonishly, that much of Duvall’s good work is for nought. His hunches never really feel that inspired, and there never seems like a good enough reason for Ticotin to indulge him. Worst of it, though, is that every underdog element is over-emphasised so he can prove himself a real man at the end. Detective Lydecker (DW Moffett) constantly belittling him? Punch his lights out. The captain telling him “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t curse”? Say “Fuck you, Captain Yardley. Fuck you very much” to him. His mentally ill wife (Tuesday Weld), for whom he is retiring early (because “I love my wife”)? Screw that. Stay on the force, put her in her place and tell her to have dinner on the table when you get home. That’ll shape her up sharpish. I’d like to think that part is supposed satirical, but it’s about as satirical as the end of Last Boy Scout, where the family unit is restored.
Occasionally the picture flashes a moment of brilliance. The “Not economically viable” vignette, in which Vondie Curtis-Hall’s itinerate is arrested is a perfect little piece, highlighting both Andrzej Bartkowiak’s sweaty, tangerine cinematography (sadly, he’s more commonly found directing middling actioners now) and James Newton Howard’s score. And I like the “I’m the bad guy?” moment; it should be a dawning long-since apparent to everyone else. I think I prefer the earlier, mocked lament “I did everything they told me to”, though (and that D-Fens was a defence contractor underlines America’s underpinnings, lending the line added resonance). It looks like that’s the lament everyone, indiscriminately with regard to background, will have cause to utter soon. Falling Down might have been a classic, had its satirical lens been sufficiently encompassing – like say Beatty’s Bulworth – but it still shows of Schumacher in his most effective mode: concentrating, first and foremost, on delivering an entertainment.