Aborted cause

Ivan Reitman's Junior ruins many stellar comic opportunities

Somewhere between Joan Rivers' 1978 bad-taste classic Rabbit Test and the $200 million-plus success of Mrs. Doubtfire teeters Junior, a film whose thudding lack of inventiveness marks the first time I've never laughed once at an Ivan Reitman film.

Considering the track record of the major players involved, this is a travesty. Last year's Dave was a surprising, satisfying foray into three-dimensional adult comedy for Reitman, whose biggest achievement up to that point had been his unflagging ability to make one gimmick entertaining for 90 minutes (Meatballs, the Ghostbusters movies).

Couple this with Arnold Schwarzenegger's swift, unself-conscious, and furious summer mini-blockbuster True Lies, and it explains why I expected Junior to go down like a Marshmallow Fluff sandwich--sickeningly sweet if you take big bites, but reliably tasty when approached with a small appetite.

Unfortunately, the only flavor in this bland concoction is the bitter trace of self-satisfied Hollywood egos, constantly distracting you from the lethargic shuffle of the movie's pace.

Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are research partners who develop a fertility drug which is denied approval by the Food and Drug Administration. They decide to prove its effectiveness by impregnating Schwarzenegger (he caves in awfully quickly) with the fertilized egg of a fellow scientist with whom he shares lab space (Emma Thompson, serving up the stammers and mannered gestures of Mary Tyler Moore without any of the appealing vulnerability underneath).

The ensuing chaos, as forced as Schwarzenegger's mugging on the film's poster, reminds us that even the most fantastic premises require characters with recognizable motivations, not just marquee personalities doing what the script tells them to. This is the kind of movie where toilet tissue stuck to the shoe is played for big laughs, and characters react to unbelievable news by fainting.

Pick up any recent publication--from The Dallas Morning News to Time and Newsweek--and you'll discover a near-glowing review of the film. The only reasonable explanation is that many critics regard Schwarzenegger's celluloid pregnancy as a humanizing metamorphosis for a celebrity who's made a lucrative career out of subverting his own big-screen image.

But screenwriters Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad wind up mining humor that petrified in '60s TV sitcoms--cravings for pickles and ice cream, getting emotional in maudlin moments, resenting men for never understanding the complexities of gestation and childbirth.

Even when Schwarzenegger dons a dress and wig for his clandestine stay at a secluded maternity clinic, Junior lacks the cheap laugh-jolt you'd expect from the sight of a musclebound '90s action hero flirting with the now commercially viable convention of drag. More than anything else, it's a predictable move in a feature that lacks the courage of its convictions--the filmmakers don't dare portray Schwarzenegger's condition beyond the narrowest slapstick definition of pregnancy instantly recognizable to several generations of filmgoers.

Witnessing such shortcuts by Schwarzenegger and DeVito isn't entirely shocking--their last film together, Reitman's Twins, was a hugely successful series of improbable situations blunted by a tendency toward family-values goo--but it casts Emma Thompson in a new and revealing light. A few years ago she was feted in the media as playing Vivien Leigh to auteur husband Kenneth Branagh's Laurence Olivier. Both now labor in bloated Hollywood productions--Branagh in the self-directed, Coppola-produced version of Frankenstein, and Thompson in an Ivan Reitman comedy opposite two schlocky, dependable box-office names. She blusters gamely, but the physical shtick that punctuates her scenes is tacked on, not assimilated into, her role.

Virtually everything that happens in Junior feels like a last-minute addition to a story that never got past the pitch stage. This is a comic fantasy without hows and whys, and with an even more muddled sense of the way sexual identity and human reproduction are linked. The filmmakers take great pains to assure us there's no romantic connection between Schwarzenegger and DeVito. The reason Ah-nuld's character moves in with DeVito's, cooks dinner for him every night, cries at his insensitivity, and berates him for his evening tardiness is hormonal, they clarify, not sexual.

If Reitman and Schwarzenegger haven't figured out those are two sides of the same coin, that's shocking; if they think we haven't figured it out, that's insulting.

Junior. A Universal Picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emma Thompson, Danny DeVito. Written by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Now showing.

 
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