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Violence becomes a joke in the ludicrous Falling Down

Falling Down
Directed by Joel Schumacher.
Written by Ebbe Roe Smith.
Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall,
Barbara Hershey, and Rachel Ticotin.
Loews Cheri
By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

Two men sit in their cars in the middle of a gridlocked freeway on the morning of a scorchingly hot day in Los Angeles. Both men are on their way to work at jobs intended to protect their society -- one works in the defense industry and the other is an LAPD detective -- but the stresses and strains that society has placed upon them are slowly wearing them away. The defense employee (Michael Douglas) looks around himself frantically, absorbing the images of laughing children, grotesque adults, flashing construction lights, and insulting bumper stickers, and as an annoying fly lands on his neck he decides to leave. Exiting his car and entering the foliage next to the freeway he tells the driver behind him that he is "going home." The police officer, Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), continues on to his office as the two men separate, like two halves of a brain tackling the same problem in drastically different ways. This is an interesting premise for what unfortunately turns into a dismally disappointing movie. Falling Down, the story of these two men, their families, and their city, is an inane attempt to comment on the problems of America today, a thriller that is laughable at best, and a film that deserves to be deplored for the enjoyment it derives from the violence it claims to be critical of.

After leaving his car, Michael Douglas' character begins to walk across the city of Los Angeles to the home of his ex-wife and young daughter, who is celebrating her birthday that day. Along the way, he meets a Korean store owner, some Hispanic gang members, a neo-Nazi fanatic, a few anal fast-food workers (in a scene that won't play very well in all of the towns that experienced McDonalds massacres), a construction crew, and a pair of golfers. He doesn't like them very much. In his encounters with these people, Douglas uses a baseball bat, a butterfly knife, a few machine guns, and a missile launcher to express exactly how bad his day is.

Meanwhile, back in his office, Prendergast is in the middle of his last day on the job before retiring. (A cop who is just about to retire before being thrust into a tense situation -- now there's a character we just don't see enough of in movies today.) He is harassed not only by his captain (Raymond J. Barry) and his fellow officers, many of whom are fairly open about how little they will miss him, but by his neurotic wife (Tuesday Weld), whose extreme fear that something terrible will happen to him is the primary cause for his leaving the force. But later that day, amazingly, only he is able to recognize the pattern in the violent acts being committed by the disgruntled defense worker. Soon he and his former partner (Rachel Ticotin) are trying to determine Douglas' final destination so that they can arrive there before he does.

All of this is clearly intended to be an eye-opening look at the way the state of today's society leads everyone to be hypercritical of their neighbors. The film means to vividly portray the rising sense of frustration in the minds of people, and how this frustration can be unleashed in fits of rage and brutality, both domestic and sociopathic. But the movie never displays any faith in this conviction. Its primary offense in this regard is making Douglas' character less of an Everyman than he is a psycho. It's not just the bad haircut and pocket protector; we eventually learn that Douglas was a man who would get extremely upset if anything did not happen precisely as he wanted it to, who had been fired from his job a month ago, and who still left his mother every morning pretending to leave for a job which he no longer held. If Douglas had played a more normal person, than his acts of rage might have been more challenging for audience members. As the film is now, there isn't much of a shock when this deeply troubled man loses his patience.

And yet, even if someone tries to watch the film as a standard thriller instead of a morality play, he will still leave unsatisfied. The screenplay, by Ebbe Roe Smith, boasts so may logically ridiculous moments, that the movie prompts more unintentional laughs than sweaty palms. I defy anyone who has the misfortune to see this movie to come up with decent answers to these questions. Why is it that after almost every one of his acts, Douglas is able to leave at a walking pace and elude the police who are close enough so that we can hear sirens? Why are the police not intently searching for a man who matches Douglas' striking physical appearance? (At one point two cops arrest a protester not more than 100 feet away from Douglas, who is watching as the man is being taken into custody.) And finally, how can Barbara Hershey's character be so dumb that when Douglas shows up at her house, she flees to a pier, quite possibly the most dangerously isolated hiding place imaginable. The only conceivable explanation for this last point is that it affords a very convenient means of getting Hershey, Douglas, and Duvall together in an area from which none of them can escape from one another.

Even with all of these ineptitudes, the most pathetic aspect of Falling Down is the great length to which the movie goes to make Douglas a sympathetic, and even humorous, vigilante. Almost all of Douglas' victims are reduced to cruel and unnecessary caricatures, again taking away all of the challenge of the scenes in which Douglas strikes out against them. One of the movie's worst scenes begins with shots of homeless people near a playground. But before the audience begins to feel more for their plight than for Douglas', a clownish homeless man (John Fleck) is introduced who acts so idiotically that the audience can once again cheer as Douglas tells the man off.

The use of cartoonish victims is seen again and again, from gap toothed fast-food managers to stuffy golfers in pastel shirts, each time allowing Douglas to look more and more like a champion over the stupid and terrible people of the world. That Falling Down plays as much as a comedy as it does as a thriller or drama is more than a bit unsettling. I read a news story a month ago about two grade school girls who plotted to stab their teacher to death. They were caught before they could commit the murder, and one of the arresting officers remembered that what troubled him the most was that the two girls were giggling while being led into the police station. At times, the terrible and exploitive Falling Down seems to want to invite the audience in on the joke.