August 31, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Falling Down (1993)

August's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) seems appropriate for the last hot days of summer, and also, coincidentally, as a follow up to my thoughts on Frozen River. More exaggerated, more violent, and more symbolic than that film, Falling Down is a movie that just makes you feel bad all over. Obviously, this is not why I recommend giving it another look. Rather, I bring attention to it as a movie with a story that, 15 years after its release, is still relevant, almost poignant, and probably just as shocking to watch.

I didn't see Falling Down in the theater, and I probably haven't seen it for at least five years, but somehow it remains with me more than some of the movies that I've seen in the last month. It's no surprise - just by looking at the poster you can tell it features unique imagery. But beyond the memorable scenes and beyond Michael Douglas' jawdroppingly overlooked performance, Falling Down deserves credit for being one of those movies, like the upcoming Underrated MOTM The Siege, that was eerily ahead of its time.

Actor Ebbe Roe Smith had two screenwriting credits in his career: Falling Down was his first original screenplay, and Car 54, Where Are You? was his second (don't ask, it's Hollywood). Every studio in Hollywood reportedly turned down Smith's screenplay for Falling Down until Douglas read it and endorsed it as "one of the best he'd ever read". Brought on board to direct was Joel Schumacher, who had made his career in the 80's with St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys. After a few promising early 90's offerings (Falling Down included), Schumacher would unfortunately begin producing the box-office repellent that he continues to bring us to this day. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who's seen more than one of his movies in the theater in the last 10 years. I'm serious - anybody?

By the same token, you might have as much difficulty finding more than handful of people who have either seen or remember Falling Down. For the most part, initial reviews were positive, including a gem by Roger Ebert. In the years that have passed, however, online critics (no doubt still riding the anti-Crash bandwagon full steam ahead) have lashed out at Falling Down, calling it, "a crude, cathartic rant that both condemns and exploits modern paranoia," and, "an uneven and frequently pretentious story that is never as important or dramatic as it thinks it is."
I'm not going to take this opportunity to defend Crash in particular, but I am going to declare that movies like it (and like Falling Down's L.A. predecessor Grand Canyon) have the potential to be extremely powerful and influential in a number of ways, beyond the fact that they initiate a conversation that few Americans want to have.

In case you haven't seen Falling Down, well there's not much to summarize. It's just one crazy day in the life of Bill Foster (Douglas), a former Department of Defense employee who, unable to deal with his failed marriage (which ended in a restraining order) and abrupt job loss, simply snaps one hot summer morning while sitting in a hellish traffic jam on the way to his daughter's birthday party, to which he was obviously uninvited. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Foster does what so many of us have considered: he gets out of his car and just starts walking. Through a series of bizarre encounters with gang members, a neo-Nazi, a Korean shop owner, some Whammyburger employees, and several other L.A. denizens, Foster commits numerous felonies and takes multiple lives. Throughout his rampage, he's tracked by the grizzled, retiring detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), who eventually finds Foster at the home of his ex-wife, Beth (Barbara Hershey).

There are two aspects to Falling Down that leave a lasting impression to this day. The first is the performance by Michael Douglas, who inhabits the monstrous Bill Foster with shocking ease even if he occasionally pours on the snarling nastiness a little too thick. If you found it necessary I suppose you could point out that Foster's character is thinly developed, but then I think you're missing the point. We don't know much more about him than we knew about Heath Ledger's Joker in this summer's The Dark Knight, but that didn't seem to create a problem, did it? Both are entirely original characters, and though their hysterics are more important than their histories, a major difference between the two is worth pointing out: people like Bill Foster actually exist.

I love Ebert's take on Foster:

"What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders."

Aside from featuring one of the most overlooked characters of the 90's, Falling Down was also, as I already mentioned, an amazingly accurate portrayal of 1992 Los Angeles. Again, Ebert:

"Because the character is white, and many of his targets are not, the movie could be read as racist. I prefer to think of it as a reflection of the real feelings of a lot of people who, lacking the insight to see how political and economic philosophies have affected them, fall back on easy scapegoating. If you don't have a job and the Korean shop owner does, it is easy to see him as the villain. It takes a little more imagination to realize that you lost your job because of the greedy and unsound financial games of the go-go junk bond years...Falling Down does a good job of representing a real feeling in our society today."

Easy for Ebert to say in 1993 after having observed the L.A. riots which, wouldn't you know it, occurred while Falling Down was filming in the city.

If everything Ebert says is true, and I believe it is, Falling Down should be praised as one of the better movies of the 90's, as an unflinching tale of moral decay, and as an important influence on the racially-charged movies that followed it, including Crash and American History X. Wash all of that aside if you like, but you still have a performance by Michael Douglas that is somehow never mentioned alongside his memorable work in Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, The Game, and Wonder Boys. Where is the love for this movie? Absent within it, absent toward it.

Too bad, really, because another look at Falling Down could produce some important discussions at this time in America. Unfortunately, I fear Bill Foster is not as much of a caricature as we'd like to think.


  1. Up until recently, there were a handful of filmmakers on my permanent blacklist and I would avoid anything they made. For a long time, Joel Schumacher was a charter member so I gladly skipped this one when it was in theaters.

    Sounds like maybe now I ought to go back and have a look?

  2. I'm not excusing anything the guy has done since this movie, including Batman Forever, but yes, I would say that this is definitely worth a look. Once you swallow the fact that Douglas' character could actually experience a day like this, the whole thing comes together fairly well. If nothing else, I remember it being extremely engaging.

  3. You said it, Daniel. I don't know of too many film geeks - other than yourself - that have given Falling Down much thought since 1993. This is because it's not a good movie.

    Neither Douglas or Schumacher seem like they want to present anything too upsetting and as a result, don't take this material nearly far enough. Compared with Fight Club, this would be fit for broadcast on the Disney Channel.

  4. Haha, say it like you mean it, Joe!

    I don't know, I remember it being fairly raw, and when I was looking back at some of the clips on YouTube I still thought the dialogue and themes were just harsh as what's coming out these days, even if the violence wasn't as bloody. This may be a subjective issue, but I would consider a fair amount of the scenes upsetting, and these two NYT articles from the time confirm that it was considered pretty "nasty" upon its release. Of course, they were in NY and you were in L.A., so maybe you deserve the last word on how accurate things really were at the time, and maybe you're talking about something altogether different anyway. I just think that even if the language and violence are circa-1993, the characters are, so far, timeless.

  5. I'm with you, Daniel, and when this pops up on HBO, to this day I'm stay put and watch it.

    I've never cared to the ex-wife/daughter melodrama, as I think it played too much like the "abusive husband" storyline seen so many other times, but aside from that and a few other minor quibbles (don't like Rachel Ticotin, hated the scenes with Duvall talking to his needy wife), I've always enjoyed Falling Down.

    Outside of all of the relevant points you make about LA and the other social commentary aspects, I've found it at times to be hilarious. It doesn't get much better than the Whammyburger scene.

  6. Nice, Fletch! I've blocked much of the wife storylines (both for Duvall and for Douglas) out of my mind, not because they aren't important to the character development of those two, but because they are, like you say, retread pieces that we've seen before.

    Researching a bit as I was writing this I was surprised to see people referring to it as a great dark comedy, but after watching the Whammyburger scene again I can see why. I wish I could embed that in the comments. Other key scenes are with the Korean shop owner, the neo-Nazi, and the gang members. But apart from those, it's interesting to just watch Douglas prowl around alone, too.


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