Problem Child was originally going to be a much darker movie than the one we got – and it never shook those eventual Home Alone comparisons.
Regardless of the generation, children (as well as some adults) only deal in absolutes. You’re either PlayStation or you’re Xbox. You’re DC or you’re Marvel and one such short-lived argument back in the early 1990s was “are you Home Alone or are you Problem Child?”
Spoiler: not many people chose the latter.
Problem Child, being true to its name, always came across as Home Alone’s naughtier little stepbrother, being released just five months later than the Macaulay Culkin-headlined juggernaut in the UK. The argument over the two was short-lived because it was inevitable that Culkin’s exploits in the John Hughes/Christopher Columbus hit would be a tough act to follow, both in fan’s affections and in box office returns. But like its subject, Junior Healy, Problem Child’s journey was far from smooth so it’s also far from a fair fight.
First of all, it needs to be said that despite the name, Problem Child is far from full of problems. Turning 30 years old in May, it’s aged okay and still has some genuine good times to give us. The put-upon cat with plaster casts on his legs, nuns being fired out of rubbish chutes and the red devil suit that Junior wears, for instance. Also, it was much, much darker than Home Alone: see Junior’s potential pillow smothering, kitchen conjugal visits and a mass murderer who makes the Wet Bandits seem… wet.
But the film started out as something much, much different.
Problem Child was inspired by the LA Times article and real-life story An Adopted Boy–and Terror Begins about the desperate parents who felt fooled into adopting a child called Tommy, a “dangerous sociopath”. Tommy terrorised his adoptive parents and was still sending death threats to them, long after he’d been committed to an institution.
With Tommy setting fires, praying to Satan and mutilating the family dog it’s no surprise that many writers were trying to pitch the same idea as a horror in a similar vein to The Omen. Dialling down the scares somewhat, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander pitched the idea as a dark comedy, satirising the slew of child-oriented films of the late 1980s (Uncle Buck, Three Men And A Baby and Look Who’s Talking et al) where children inadvertently teach adults invaluable life lessons though unlikely encounters.
Universal, however, developed different ideas during a difficult production when it started to believe that Problem Child would never break even. That it was their “wounded soldier” that it’d have to leave behind on the battlefield. Over the course of a round of reshoots (or 11, as the writers later joked) Problem Child was remoulded in the same image of the films that it originally sought to poke fun at, much to the chagrin of everyone involved.
Scott Alexander admitted on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast that he cried after watching the cast and crew screening because he and everyone else thought it was simply terrible. In fact, Alexander and Karaszewski were so eager to distance themselves from the film afterwards that they would shy away from talking about it when pitching for other projects (although they did return to quickly pen the sequel).
Problem Child’s anarchic attitude didn’t just stay on the screen though as the promotion for the film also walked a fine line between being ingenious and idiotic. The ad campaign included ‘reviews’ from a whole host of famous film nefarios including Darth Vader, Bart Simpson and Al Capone, who declared the film to be ‘Four-star fun for the whole gang!’
It seems even Universal thought a full five stars might have come across as too keen.
One version of the poster also directly sent up 1989’s Parenthood, true to the original satiric vision, with Junior hanging his adopted parents upside down instead of Steve Martin’s character doing the same thing to his onscreen kids. Would Kevin McCallister ever have dared? Would he have had the core strength? Doubtful.
Whereas Problem Child was scalded by critics, Universal and its own writers, its performance at the box office seemed to suggest that the reshoots and rethinks were all worth it, with $72 million made worldwide against a production budget of $10 million. In fact Universal’s chairman Tom Pollock claimed it was its most profitable film of the year.
Although you shouldn’t pick a favourite, while Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister slowly grows to miss, appreciate and be more patient with his family, Michael Oliver’s Junior doesn’t even dial down his disobedience. The viewer, much like the Healy family, knows that Junior’s journey has been harrowing, so it comes down to us to find sympathy rather than having it prompted by a shift in his behaviour.
And perhaps that’s the root of all Junior’s problems. The family fodder films which Problem Child set out to satirise featured both the adults and the children making moves towards a common ground, with both of them emotionally evolving along the way.
There’s little such evolution in Problem Child: the ever-cheery Ben Healy (John Ritter) sees his optimism finally pay off as he rids himself of his overbearing wife (Amy Yasbeck). Similarly, Jack Warden’s Big Ben Healy is devoid of a single redeemable quality throughout and Gilbert Gottfried’s adoption agent is, well, Gilbert Gottfried. Even Michael Richards’ convict ends up getting sent back to prison. Junior is simply encouraged to ‘be himself’ and no matter what we’re told, that’s not a good thing.
As for the aftermath? Problem Child went on to spawn a further two films with Problem Child 2 being delivered a mere nine months later in February 1992 in the UK. Each instalment came with diminishing returns (and a new lead by the threequel) and was put to rest after a short-lived cartoon series.
With Problem Child being his debut directorial effort, Dennis Dugan only helmed the fake Marx Brothers film Brain Donors before going back to TV and didn’t return to feature films until 1996’s Happy Gilmore. Gilbert Gottfried was nominated for a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie (which was split three ways between Problem Child, The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane and Look Who’s Talking Too) but lost out to Donald Trump in Ghosts Can’t Do It. Insert your own gag here.
Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander went on to write Ed Wood, Man On The Moon and Netflix’s Dolemite iIs My Name. Michael Oliver, on the other hand, never starred in another feature film after Problem Child 2 and was a drum-tech/roadie for years under the name Mike “PC” Ponce after reverting to his mother’s surname. You can guess what “PC” stands for.
Once a Problem Child, always a Problem Child.
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