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.