*/**** Image C+ Sound C+ Extras C-
starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Tuesday Weld
screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith
directed by Joel Schumacher
by Walter Chaw Atrociously written by actor Ebbe Roe Smith and atrociously directed (it goes without saying) by Joel Schumacher, it's also got a really terrible old-person performance by Robert Duvall, who would court Oscar with this exact hand-patting, repeating himself, huffy-giggly shtick at the end of the '90s with The Apostle. The whole thing is dreadful, rife with an unbearable self-satisfied rattle of social outrage that it's entirely unwilling to decipher to any useful end. Falling Down is a barely-literate rant, delivered at the top of the proverbial lungs, that suggests not-shockingly that L.A. is the epicentre of immigrant tension, gang violence, racial warfare, and class resentments. It postulates at the centre of this ever-swirling maelstrom crew-cut cipher Bill, known mainly by his vanity plate "D-FENS," who cracks one day in the middle of a Fellini homage and decides to abandon his car to the fates and walk to the house of his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and daughter. They've got a restraining order against him, of course, because he's a nutball. And because we're talking social satire here, Bill's been laid off for a month without telling anyone and, man, this recession sure is taking its toll, isn't it? Over the course of his Swiftian travels, Bill encounters a Korean grocer charging too much at his mini-mart; Hispanic gang-bangers who try to kill him in a drive-by; a white supremacist NRA nut (Frederic Forrest, who, like Duvall, used to be better than this) running an army surplus store; and a little black kid who knows how to use a bazooka.
Racist? It's really only racist in the sense that it recognizes that stereotypes often become so by having a basis in fact. What alarms about Falling Down is mostly how graceless it is. If it's satire, it's executed by people guilty of perpetrating that which they propose to satirize--like Crash, for instance, another film just smart enough to hang itself. Consider that throughout there are moments--like when the doddering, last-day-on-the-job detective Prendergast (Duvall) misidentifies a fellow cop who's Japanese as Korean--where Falling Down contorts itself into a pretzel to pat itself on the back for its progressive thinking. Instead of mustering the courage to paint the world as a real sty, it paints it as a movie one in which everyone in every part of Bill's life is exactly rude enough to inspire vituperative monologues, then their satisfying murder. Not content to have the surplus store owner get shot in the back for being a loudmouth who hates fags and women, it has him be a Nazi as well, holding an empty can of Zyklon-B to his chest like a rosary. Not content to have Bill beat a pair of gang-bangers with a sawed-off bat he's stolen off a hysterical Celestial, it has the unfortunate gangsters rake a crowd of innocent bystanders so that their inevitable comeuppance is completely justified. In this way, all of Michael's ugly-speak is endorsed as well--the Korean's an idiot and therefore his inability to speak proper English is correctly excoriated. See--that's a problem. When Michael terrorizes a McDonald's-like restaurant in an ugly (at the time and still) echo of the massacre at a San Ysidro McDonald's, he uses it as the opportunity for a stand-up routine involving how the pictures on the menu boards never look like the finished product. Stupid? Pointless? Yes to both. But also crowd-pleasing in a middlebrow, "Seinfeld"-ian fashion, where outraged observation is the beginning and the end of wit.
Meanwhile, every woman in the film is portrayed as some shade of dumb, hysterical bitch except cop Torrez (Rachel Ticotin), who ends up with a bullet in her liver. What to make of the scene where demented, drooling, stammering grandpa Prendergast finally summons the cum from his wizened balls to browbeat insane wife Amanda (Tuesday Weld) over the telephone for the bemusement of his partner? An unforgivable scene (and two unforgivable performances) forgiven by the film in subsequently having Prendergast punch the office windbag in the mouth for daring to suggest that his Mrs. is a menopausal loon. Nobody belittles and brutalizes the inmates except the warden, I guess. Falling Down is rancorous without any commensurate sublimity to salvage it--as exploitation goes, I even prefer I Spit on Your Grave. The better movie has Bill celebrated as a hero à la Taxi Driver, a real voice of the seething majority as opposed to this ballistic anomaly meant to stand in for Reagan, Ollie North, George Sr., and the whole mess at the beginning of the '90s that Clinton had yet to paper over with his smooth Arkansan charm. Let's face it: the better movie doesn't try to pack the country's Vietnam hangover, economic mess, and dissolution of its middle class into a vagrant's speech that begins with the declaration that he's a vet, followed by the riposte that he doesn't seem like an animal doctor. Shut up, Juno.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Falling Down debuts on Blu-ray in a digibook edition from Warner that appends the packaging with a booklet of illustrated production notes--a handsome thing for such an ugly movie. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer on this single-layer BD could only be so good since the film in question is, there's that word again, ugly, as hell, from start to finish, striking one note--hazy--over and over again. Be that as it may, it's got that digital glaze from which too many of Warner's catalogue titles suffer in pandering to the big-box HiDef convert. The accompanying Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is curiously in 2.0 and as such is obviously limited. What's there, for what it's worth, sounds clear and undistorted.
Cobbled-together from sources contemporary and vintage, a feature-length yakker seemingly represents every major player of the production; choose it as your option and enter into a stygian mess of grotesque misunderstanding and bad critique. Schumacher evidently equates Bill's abandonment of his car as the most profound statement ever made about America's relationship with automobiles, but let's face it: Schumacher is no goddamn Roland Barthes. Douglas then comes on to say how he saw this role as an examination of guilt and the lack of it and so forth, generally underscoring the idea that actors should almost never be allowed to discuss the value and meaning of a film. Neither should the writer, as it happens--particularly if the writer is also an actor. A new featurette, "Deconstructing D-Fens: A Conversation with Michael Douglas" (10 mins.), has Douglas talking about receiving the hot-potato script, responding to its zeitgeist-iness, and confirming that this one is one for the ages. What I wish he would have touched on is why it is that Douglas is only ever good when he plays a variety of unrepentant, unsalvageable asshole. Maybe the question's the answer. Trailers for the film and the studio's Blu-ray slate round out the presentation. Originally published: December 8, 2009.