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MOVIE REVIEWS : Everyman Can’t Keep From ‘Falling Down’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

It all starts with a fly. A fly buzzing around in a car with failing air-conditioning and non-functioning windows, stuck on the L.A. freeways in the Mother of All Traffic Jams on the hottest day of the year. If this sounds like a setup, you’re beginning to get the picture.

There is a man inside the car, an ostentatiously average citizen with a white shirt and tie, brush haircut and clunky glasses, even a pen shield in his shirt pocket and a patriotic “D-Fens” personalized license plate. The heat, the traffic, the fly, the futility of his no doubt miserable life, everything combines to overwhelm the man, and as “Falling Down” (citywide) opens, he abandons his car, announces “I’m going home,” and starts to walk away from it all.

This, you may be sure, is not fated to be an ordinary walk. For as D-Fens (Michael Douglas with a scowl surgically implanted on his face) heads west toward the ocean, he embarks on a Cook’s Tour of urban decay, progressively experiencing every insult and indignity known to modern man. But passive no more, in fact Everyman turned Terminator, he gives as good as he gets, wreaking vengeance for the slights of a lifetime on anyone who has the temerity to get in his way.

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As written by Ebbe Roe Smith and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Falling Down” is more than anything else a greedy picture. Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” with a bogus social conscience, it is eager to have things both ways, to spinelessly pander to a mass audience on the one hand while piously calling attention to pressing urban problems on the other.

The first person D-Fens meets, for instance, is a surly grocer who not only doesn’t have the decency to give him change to make a phone call, but also has shamelessly overpriced everything in his convenience store and is a pain in the neck in the bargain. But never fear, D-Fens is about to teach him a lesson he is never going to forget.

The same holds true for everyone else who crosses the man’s path, from turf-proud gang members, pushy panhandlers and a bigoted neo-Nazi (Frederic Forrest) to “Dig we must” street repair crews who could care less about the inconvenience they cause, and intractable fast-food employees who won’t serve breakfast to customers who just miss the cutoff. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” D-Fens tells these folks, an armed and dangerous Miss Manners intent on restoring civility to the world even if he has to frighten people half to death to do it.

Yet “Falling Down” isn’t content with having audiences laugh at its simplistic jokes and mindlessly cheer D-Fens on, it also wants us to cluck disapprovingly at what a loose cannon he is, to sympathize with the terrorized ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) he wants to visit and the quietly heroic cop (Robert Duvall) who has to first figure out what D-Fens is up to and then track him down while dealing with his own high-strung and whiny spouse (Tuesday Weld). And all this, wouldn’t you know it, on his very last day on the job.

Most galling of all, “Falling Down” (rated R for violence and strong language) seems eager to get credit for the way it uses serious social problems as shallow window dressing in an urban fantasy. Throwing in shots of homeless people, of a man holding a “Dying of AIDS” sign and another protesting at a failed savings & loan is supposed to convince us this film is serious about making a difference, when all it is serious about is putting money in its own pockets.

“Falling Down’s” script and direction are slick and commercial (Smith is an actor turned screenwriter, Schumacher’s credits include “Flatliners,” “Cousins” and “The Lost Boys”), and the film is certainly adept at pointing out the areas of stress and irritation in modern city life. But “Falling Down” appears to be totally oblivious to the ways it is at best capitalizing on a difficult situation and at worst making it even more intractable.

Rather than admit that the very real probems D-Fens encounters are not capable of simplistic solutions, the film wants to safely pin every trace of trouble on those nameless others who always seem to do so much damage. Happy to have found a way to cash in on society’s miseries, “Falling Down” encourages a gloating sense that we the long-suffering victims are finally getting our splendid revenge. The ultimate hollowness of that kind of triumph reflects the shallowness of a film all too eager to serve it up.

‘Falling Down’ Michael Douglas: D-Fens Robert Duvall: Prendergast: Barbara Hershey: Beth Rachel Ticotin: Sandra Frederic Forrest: Surplus Store Owner Tuesday Weld: Mrs. Prendergast

An Arnold Kopelson production, in association with Le Studio Canal+, Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Arnold Kopelson, Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris. Executive producer Arnon Milchan. Screenplay Ebbe Roe Smith. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Paul Hirsch. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Barbara Ling. Art director Larry Fulton. Set decorator Cricket Rowland. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (violence and strong language).


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