Child is Bother of the Man
Child is Bother of the Man
By Nick Pinkerton
A look at 1994’s “minor“ masterpiece Clifford.
Clifford plays at Metrograph, as part of our Charles Grodin tribute, until April 6.
The delicate delinquency of Jerry Lewis, the sniveling breakdowns of Stan Laurel and the bullying boisterousness of Oliver Hardy, a simpleminded streak in the Adam Sandler filmography that runs from Billy Madison (1995) to Hubie Halloween (2020)—if you lifted these and other myriad arrested development cases out of the history of American screen comedy, you’d find yourself faced with quite a few yawning gaps in the timeline. The examples cited—and there are many others—are of theoretically “adult” performers portraying characters who’ve acquired none of what are traditionally considered the characteristics of adulthood, some of these positive (impulse control, capacity for compromise, consideration of others’ needs), some of these negative (dissembling, self-repression). The social scientist might chalk this up to an adolescent aspect in the national disposition, a kind of pervasive Peter Pan syndrome, but sticking to the concrete, it might be safer to say that Americans—and many admirers of Hollywood movies abroad—have long seemed to get a kick out of full-grown men (and it’s very often men) acting like tantruming kindergarteners.
Between the cinema’s juvenile grown-ups and its misbehaving children, too numerous to mention, exists a third category of “child” performance, scarcer than either because it flirts with the truly obscene: those in which adult actors portray actual minors. Setting aside body-swap comedies of the Freaky Friday variety, and other films (i.e. 1988’s Big; 1996’s Jack) that provide fantastic premises for the aberrant spectacle of overgrown youth that they present, every example I can think of, in fact, belongs to television and sketch comedy: Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller; Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann; a few Dennis Potter teleplays (1965’s Stand Up, Nigel Barton, 1979’s Blue Remembered Hills, 1996’s Cold Lazarus); Joe Besser’s “Stinky,” straining his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit at the seams on The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-54). Every example, that is, save for 1994’s Clifford.
Clifford is the story of a 10-year-old troublemaker, the namesake of the film, who’s been left in the care of his bachelor uncle and who, when denied a promised visit to the theme park Dinosaur World, unleashes a relentless campaign of terror on his temporary guardian, scampering into retreat behind a mask of sweet, guileless boyish innocence after his every life-ruining sally. Co-written by partners Steven Kampmann and William Porter aka Will Aldis (credited on the film as, respectively, Bobby von Hayes and Jay Dee Rock), it was originally intended as a vehicle for a child actor, but when brass at studio Orion Pictures became concerned with the script’s too-close similarity to another movie in production over at Imagine Entertainment, 1990’s Problem Child, some quick thinking was required to get Clifford back on track. The inspiration that kept the greenlight flashing: distinguishing Clifford from its perceived competition by casting Martin Short, then pushing 40, in the title role. This was, of course, a patently bizarre, off-putting idea, but then Orion had then recently bet on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s viability as a screen star by underwriting 1989’s UHF. When commentators on the Biz talk about “the days when the studios still took risks,” this is presumably what they are talking about.
As it happened, no one needed have fretted too much about the proximity of Problem Child’s release; Orion went bankrupt in 1991, and Clifford, already held up by lengthy reshoots, was one of many Orion productions that spent a few years in limbo while the studio shored up its finances following a string of gambles that hadn’t paid off, among them the Yankovic gambit. (The studio had a history of such risks, having five years earlier found an unlikely savior in the form of Back to School, an early starring vehicle for sixtysomething stand-up Rodney Dangerfield co-written by Kampmann and Porter, which, like Clifford revolved around age-inappropriate hijinks.)
Clifford failed to recoup even half of its pre-P&A budget, and was widely condemned by critical Pharisees put off by the wrong-footed strangeness of the whole thing—which, then and now, was for admirers a large part of the film’s pleasure.
The completed Clifford paired Short with Charles Grodin, only 15 years his senior, playing the role of Clifford’s harassed and increasingly unhinged Uncle Martin. It failed to recoup even half of its pre-P&A budget, and was widely condemned by critical Pharisees put off by the wrong-footed strangeness of the whole thing—which, then and now, was for admirers a large part of the film’s pleasure. Everything about Clifford is “off,” something encapsulated by the film’s most famous exchange, in which Grodin demands: “Can you just act like a human boy for one minute here? Look at me like a person! You can’t do it for more than a few seconds,” his words greeted by a succession of facial contortions from Short that suggest some sort of AI-generated graphic attempting to summon up a recognizable human expression and failing to hurtle the uncanny valley more miserably with each try. Similarly, any endeavors to render Clifford more palatable to audiences following divisive test screenings only succeeded in making it more wrong, as in a tacked-on, moralizing bookend device that introduces a reformed Clifford, now a priest counseling troubled youths in far-flung 2050. The idea, one supposes, was to provide the little monster with some reassuring “character development”; the execution, however, is deeply disconcerting, right down to the “futuristic” cassock that Father Clifford is wearing. There is no fix for a film so irreparably twisted.
In the case of Clifford’s reputation, at least, the long moral arc of the universe has bent towards justice. Like UHF and other cult cinema properties of approximately the same vintage—Cabin Boy, another critically maligned “high-concept” comedy vehicle for an acquired-taste performer, Chris Elliott, released the same year as the long-shelved Clifford, or Nicolas Cage’s films of his post-prestige period—Clifford has been more than redeemed. It has been the subject of an extensive oral history at Vulture featuring the voices of various involved talent and fans, Cage among them. I expect that, some 30 years hence, it will be added to the Registry of the National Film Preservation Board without so much as a peep of controversy.
In the abovementioned oral history, actor Richard Kind, who plays Clifford’s end-of-his-rope father, refers to the film as an “anarchist comedy,” identifying its essential spirit with that of the saboteur title character. More accurately, it’s a comedy about the confrontation between anarchy, represented by Clifford, and order, represented by Uncle Martin—a grudge-match battle between a wrecker and a builder. Martin is an architect and engineer, encountered in the last stages of designing a state-of-the-art public transit system for Los Angeles, as useful and benevolent a commission as one could possibly imagine, the scale models for the project, showing monorails gliding through downtown, recalling the stock images of a blissful, eco-friendly future used in the popular “Society if…” meme. Among Martin’s previous accomplishments is designing the Larry the Scary Rex ride at Dinosaur World, which he, after running a gauntlet of humiliations orchestrated by his nephew, turns into a house of horrors especially for Clifford’s torment, the builder now ground down to the status of wrecker.
As in Howard Hawks’s 1938 Bringing Up Baby, the lingering presence of prehistory in the modern world here suggests the eternal pull of atavism. (Hawks got plenty of mileage out of the spectacle of men reduced to infantilism, like Charles Coburn’s wet-mouthed horndog in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as well as boys acting like little old men, like George Winslow’s bullfrog-voiced Henry Spofford III in the same film.) Clifford embodies a curious admixture of savage innocence and sophistication, the latter evident in his preference for sentence constructions that seem to belong to a Victorian child in a penny dreadful. (“My little mouth is parched from my long night of bondage”; “Why is his face twisted so?”) In vendetta mode, he exhibits a sort of genius for calculating mischief, but his shrewd intelligence is put in the service of a single, compelling, all-consuming impulse—namely, to experience Dinosaur World, which he identifies as “the only place where a boy like me can be happy.” Devising sophisticated punishments to pursue his passion for the primitive, Clifford has a real thing for dinosaurs, and whenever he’s caught getting up to no good he’s quick to assign blame to the plastic Apatosaurus that he carries everywhere with him, which he’s affixed with the curiously European-sounding moniker “Steffen.”
Scrunched down in the frame to play the part of the deviant little imp, Short gets Clifford’s showiest role, but the movie only works by virtue of his having a partner like Grodin on-hand to return every serve, showcasing the best slow burn this side of Edgar Kennedy. Not here as merely a face of outraged propriety like, say, Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films, Grodin forms a genuine double act with Short, with a great deal of the film given over to just winding the performers up and letting them spin out.
Nearly 30 years earlier it had been Grodin playing the character needled along by a consuming compulsion, the young New York Jewish go-getter driven to the pursuit of flaxen-haired Midwestern skiksa Cybill Shepherd in his breakthrough role in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which found Grodin memorably groveling at the dinner table before his dream girl’s disapproving parents. In Clifford, Grodin faces further ritual humiliation in front of a stern WASP patriarch—the father of Martin’s fiancée, Sarah Davis, played by a charmingly blinkered Mary Steenburgen—but Grodin is no kid anymore, past the his reckless years, middle-aged and flagrantly toupeed, newly installed in an antiseptic modernist house that leaves no room for the possibility of accommodating children. Where The Heartbreak Kid ends with Grodin’s character looking confusedly disconsolate at having finally gotten what he wants and feeling none the happier for it, his later roles would often find him playing a man responding to his best-laid plans crumbling around him with a thousand ingenious variants of petulant exasperation, whether a swell-headed impresario who loses his meal-ticket giant monkey (1976’s King Kong), a suburban veterinarian whose family life is undone by the invasion of a proto-reality television crew (1979’s Real Life), or a workaholic dad thrown into conniptions by a rampaging St. Bernard (1992’s Beethoven and its 1993 sequel).
Jacques Rivette’s provocative description of Hawks’s 1952 primate comedy Monkey Business—a chronicle of “the fatal stages in the degradation of a superior mind”—might just as well be applied to Uncle Martin’s journey in Clifford, which begins with a dream of order and non-procreative romance, and ends in near-murder in the simulacra Jurassic swamps of Dinosaur World. On its release, this study in breakdown was received by many reviewers as a symbol of the ongoing degradation of American popular cinema, falling ever further from the sophisticated heights of the ’70s that had produced “adult” films like The Heartbreak Kid and 1974’s Chinatown—the latter, notably, shot by Clifford DP John A. Alonzo.
Clifford would be the third and final theatrical feature directed by Paul Flaherty, a Pittsburgh native like Grodin and the brother of Short’s SCTV co-star Joe, though Flaherty would work with Short again on all 30 episodes of the Comedy Central series Primetime Glick (2000-2003), featuring a fat-suited Short as Jiminy Glick, an entertainment journalist whose blind worship of celebrity is only exceeded by his ignorance of every aspect of the culture industry. Pink, powdered, smooth-faced, and given to glutting himself from a handy candy dish, Glick resembles nothing so much as a gurgling, overgrown baby, an imposingly obscene addition to the nursery menagerie of puerile grotesques that Short has been stocking up since the days of introducing his prancing man-child Ed Grimley. Those who expect art to elevate may not find much in this body of work, but altogether it seems an appropriate response to a playpen culture, these wails from the cradle of civilization.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Decadent Editions), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).