Picks and Pans Review: Problem Child

updated 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

John Ritter, Michael Oliver

The real problem isn't with the child, played quite winningly by Oliver, an 8-year-old from Los Angeles. It's with first-time feature director Dennis Dugan and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (this is their first produced script), whose penis obsession is so pervasive that Oliver ends up delivering two "dick" jokes—clubbing one male character in the crotch with a baseball bat and kicking another in the same vicinity. They also have him idolize a mass murderer.

So a basically quite likable little guy takes on the qualities of a scummy little brat, and a basically likable little movie seems like a scummy little film no parents should let their child near. (Substituting the word "jerk" blows to, say, the shin, and making the mass murderer, say, a clever con man would have accomplished the same comic purpose with a substantial decrease in the offensiveness quotient.)

Ritter is, as usual, appealingly earnest and Amy Yasbeck (see page 51) amusingly crass and vain as the parents who adopt a malicious, misunderstood 7-year-old. (Ritter convinces Yasbeck that adoption would be a good idea by pointing out to her that the process of choosing a child is "like shopping.") Little Colby Kline matches Oliver's precocity as a pouty, self-righteous birthday girl who incites him into a fit of mischief by refusing to let him watch the clown perform at her party.

The usually resourceful comic actor Michael (UHF) Richards is essentially wasted as the murderer who escapes from prison and seeks out the young admirer who has been writing to him (even in this context, the humor potential of the character is unexploited).

The end is refreshingly less sentimental than it seems to be shaping up to be, but the film's ugly moments can't help but leave a bad taste. It's as if you had found out that in addition to all his regular rascally pranks, Dennis the Menace spent his spare time making obscene phone calls and tormenting flies. (PG)

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