Problem Child (film)

Problem Child

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Produced by
Written by Scott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski
Music by Miles Goodman
Cinematography Peter Lyons Collister
Edited by
  • Tom Finan
  • Daniel P. Hanley
  • Mike Hill
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • July 27, 1990 (1990-07-27)
Running time
81 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $10 million[2]
Box office $72.2 million[3]

Problem Child is a 1990 American comedy film directed by Dennis Dugan and produced by Robert Simonds. The film stars John Ritter, Amy Yasbeck, Gilbert Gottfried, Jack Warden, Michael Richards, and Michael Oliver.


The film opens with a woman leaving a bassinet on the porch of a fancy home; the baby, Junior, promptly pees on the woman who picks him up. From there, he is repeatedly discarded at various homes throughout many years by guardians who have grown tired of his destructive behavior—which includes throwing a rattle at the window, giving a cat soap to eat, using a vacuum cleaner to suck up the fish tank, and demolishing a mobile home with a bulldozer in retaliation for his favorite toys being stepped on—until he is eventually deposited at a Catholic orphanage, where he continues to wreak havoc on the strict nuns.

Benjamin "Ben" Healy is a pleasant but brow-beaten husband, yuppie, and baseball coach working for his father, Big Ben, a tyrannical sporting goods dealer who is running for mayor. Recently, he has discovered that his father intends to sell his store and the land to a Japanese company rather than leave it to him; when he asks why, Big Ben reveals that it is because his son "stubbornly refuses to follow his example" by adopting an honest work ethic instead of a ruthless drive to usurp. He would love to have a son, but his selfish, gold-digging wife, Florence ("Flo" for short), has been unable to conceive. Ben and Flo are never invited to parties because they do not have a kid. Eventually Ben is able to convince Flo into adopting a child. They then approach a less-than-trustworthy adoption agent named Igor Peabody with the dilemma, and Igor presents them with Junior.

However, Junior is hardly a model child; apparently mean-spirited and incorrigible. He leaves a path of serious destruction in his wake, and is even pen pals with Martin Beck, a notorious serial killer called the Bow Tie Killer. He sets his room on fire using a clown lamp and throws Fuzzball, the family cat, at Big Ben and he falls down the stairs. He messes up a camping trip with the neighbors by peeing on the campfire, and manipulating a practical joke played on the kids by their father, Roy, Ben's obnoxious friend who greatly enjoys rubbing his good fortunes in Ben's face, by luring a real black bear to the campsite. He makes Ben believe a bear is attacking when it is really Roy in a bear costume who gets hit with a frying pan. Hearing Junior laugh, Ben finds out he is responsible for making him hit Roy.

Next day at a birthday party, Lucy - the snobby birthday girl - and her friends are very cruel to him and ban him from watching the magic show. However, he wants revenge and sneaks a water sprinkler into her room, forces a boy to pin a tail on a woman's butt instead of the donkey, cuts off another girl's braid with scissors, puts a frog in the punch bowl, replaces the piñata candy with pickles including the juice, throws all the presents in the pool, and replaces the birthday candles with firecrackers. This leads Ben to punish him and take away his allowance. Seeing Junior upset, Ben gives him his most precious possession, a dried prune that belonged to his grandfather (he thought it resembled Roosevelt), telling him it signifies a bond between two people.

Finally, Junior displays his effective but unethical method for winning in a Little League baseball game where he beats up rival players with a bat after they tease him. Ben is having serious doubts about him, and decides to take him back to the orphanage. However, upon hearing he was returned thirty times, he decides to keep and love him — something no one has ever done. However, Junior becomes upset that his parents were going to send him back; despite Ben stating that he will not, he drives Flo's car into Big Ben's store, and Ben's bank account is wiped out in order to pay for the damage. He is on the verge of cracking until Martin (believing that Junior is the criminal J.R.) arrives at the house, posing as his uncle, and decides to kidnap his faithful correspondent, along with Flo, for ransom.

While Ben first sees this as good riddance to the browbeating Flo and the trouble making Junior, he soon notices signs that the latter is not the monster he appeared to be. In his drawer is the prune carefully wrapped up, and through a series of pictures he drew, he depicts Big Ben and Flo as deformed monsters with hostile surroundings, but Ben as a happy person in a pleasant background, revealing that he really did value him as a father figure all along. Realizing that his behavior was simply a response to how he himself had been treated, and that it has simply been bad luck that he has dealt with too many cruel and selfish people at such a young age, Ben undertakes a rescue mission to retrieve him back from Martin.

He then confronts Big Ben (who is preparing to make a TV appearance for his mayoral campaign) to loan him the ransom money. When he callously refuses, Ben quits his father's job and activates the camera that unknowingly puts Big Ben on live TV in revenge for the store and the land his father is selling the Japanese company, where he ends up revealing his true nature on the news.

Afterward, Ben steals Roy's car and goes to rescue Junior. He catches up with Martin and Junior at the circus. Junior is rescued after escaping from Martin through a trapeze act and calls Ben "Dad" for the first time. Martin drives away, but the Healys are now on his trail. After a collision, Flo (who was stuffed in a suitcase) is thrown into the air and lands in the back of a farm truck loaded with pigs; Ben remarks as he watches her being carried away that she had always wanted to travel.

Martin is arrested, but while being led away, he grabs an officer's sidearm and fires at Junior, but Ben shields him and takes the shot. Thinking he is dead, Junior apologizes for all the bad things he did, and tells him he will never be naughty again and he loves him. He wakes up and tells Junior he loves him, too, and realizes the bullet ricocheted off his good-luck prune, which was in his pocket. Junior asks Ben if he really believed that he was going to stop misbehaving, but Ben tells Junior he wants him to be himself. Junior then removes his bow tie and throws it over the bridge, perhaps as a sign that he has changed his ways not to be like Martin, but be himself, and is then carried home by his new father.

The film ends with Flo in the truck looking out from the suitcase, only to be met by a pig's rump, and the title track to the film, performed by The Beach Boys, plays over the closing credits.



The film was shot on location in the state of Texas, from October to November 1989. The cities that were used for filming were Dallas, Farmers Branch, Fort Worth, Irving, and Mesquite.

During a 2014 interview on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski revealed that the story was inspired by the 1988 Los Angeles Times article "An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins"[4] about a married couple suing an adoption agency after they were not informed that their adopted son had severe mental health issues with violent tendencies and had been previously returned to the agency multiple times.[5][6] While other writers pitched the story as a horror film in the vein of Bad Seed or The Omen, Alexander and Karaszewski thought it had potential as a comedy, envisioning a dark, adult satire of the then-popular trend in films where cute kids teach cynical adults how to love, as seen in Baby Boom, Parenthood (directly spoofed by the film's poster),[7][8] Look Who's Talking, Uncle Buck, Mr. Mom, Kindergarten Cop and 3 Men and a Baby. However, the studio insisted upon turning it into a children's film, a conversion which necessitated numerous reshoots and rewrites, leading to a difficult production that left all involved disappointed and anticipating it to bomb. The film defied these expectations, becoming a surprise hit and Universal's most profitable film of 1990 but was still so embarrassing for Alexander and Karaszewski (Alexander even cried after the cast and crew screening) that the two tried to distance themselves from the film, which proved difficult. Studios were initially reluctant to hire them or take them seriously based on their work on such a prominent disreputable film but, as the years went by, they would eventually come to work with executives who were children when it first came out, grew up watching its frequent TV airings and were excited to be meeting its writers. Looking back, they still feel it is "a mess," but take some pride in being involved with one of the "very few [PG-rated] children's films THAT black and THAT crazy" (citing the scene where Flo commits adultery with an escaped serial killer while her husband is catatonic and contemplating murdering his seven-year-old son in the next room as an example) adding "and it's funny."[6]

On 2015, director Dennis Dugan revealed he was hired for the movie, his first theatrical release after a decade of television directing, once in his audition for Universal, he jumped on the executives' coffee table and said "You're looking at me like I'm fucking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos." Dugan suggested John Ritter, with whom he had worked in his actor career, for the role of Ben Healy. The studio was initially reluctant, feeling they needed a more famous actor, but eventually relented. For the role of "Big Ben" Healy, Jack Warden first refused the role, and then Dugan offered half his net points. Warden was so touched he accepted the work while not taking Dugan's payments. Amy Yasbeck was cast as Ritter's wife, and both fell in love during production, eventually marrying in 1999. During production, both Ritter and Gilbert Gottfried were allowed to ad lib, making Universal complain at Dugan for shooting too much footage for Gottfried's scenes. The first test screening was disastrous, with 70 percent of the audience walking out, verbal complaints from viewers, and a score of only 30. The studio forced two weeks of reshoots, including a retooled ending and the addition of key scenes like the girl's birthday party.[9]


Box office

The film debuted at third place.[10] It went on to be a commercial success at the box office, grossing $54 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.

Critical reception

The film received widely negative reviews upon its release. On the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, it received a critics' rating of 4% based on 28 reviews, and an audience rating of 41%.[11] On Metacritic, the film has a 27/100 rating based on 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[12]

Although the film was rated PG, it is still heavily censored when shown on television due to the remarks made about adoption, which critics saw as insensitive.[13] Problem Child was not screened for critics prior to its release.[13] Surprisingly, it managed to acquire a PG rating instead of a PG-13 rating, in regards to a scene where you briefly see backside nudity (a man mooning a camera), not to mention another scene that briefly reveals snapshots Junior took of people on toilets and in showers.

Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post, noted "Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well, so that there's still some surprise in the punch lines when they come. Essentially, the problem here is the same as the problem in Gremlins 2. It's basically about tearing stuff up, and after a while you grow tired of seeing variations on the same joke of a cute kid committing horrible atrocities."[14]

Protests over posters

One of the posters for the film showed a cat in a tumble dryer, with the implication being that Junior had put it inside.[13] A group named In Defence Of Animals organised protests against the posters, and some cinemas took them down in response.[13] The group also objected to a scene in the film in which Junior splinters a cat's legs.[13]


For the film (as well as The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Look Who's Talking Too), Gilbert Gottfried was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Trump in Ghosts Can't Do It.

Home media

The film was more successful on home video.[15] The VHS version adds an extra bit just before the closing credits, in which Junior interrupts the film, to tell the audience that he'll be back next summer for Problem Child 2. Then he disappears and a loud flatulent noise is heard, followed by Ben shouting "Junior!", him laughing, then the closing credits roll. The VHS version was released on January 31, 1991.

The first DVD release was released by GoodTimes Entertainment on May 1, 2001. Problem Child and Problem Child 2 were released together on DVD in the US on March 2, 2004, as a package entitled Problem Child Tantrum Pack. These films were presented in open-matte full screen only.[16] However, no home video release thus far features the deleted footage shown on TV airings of the film.

The film was re-released on the Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (with other comedy films like Kindergarten Cop, Kicking & Screaming, and Major Payne) in anamorphic widescreen (being the film's first widescreen Region 1 DVD release) on August 5, 2008.[17][18]



The film inspired two sequels: the first, Problem Child 2, was released theatrically in 1991; the second, Problem Child 3: Junior in Love, was a television film aired on the NBC in 1995. The first one brought back the original cast in their original roles and picked up where the first film ended. However, Yasbeck was given a new role with a new dynamic totally opposite to her original character. In the third and final film, recast Ben and Junior with William Katt and Justin Chapman, while Gottfried and Warden reprised their roles as Mr. Peabody and Big Ben and does not follow the storyline of the first two films.

Animated series

There was an animated TV series that aired in 1993. Gottfried was the only original cast member to be featured as a voice-over actor, making him the only cast member involved in all three films as well as the cartoon (Warden was in all three films, but not the TV series). NBC has ordered a pilot for a TV series based on the film.

Television version

Twelve minutes worth of deleted footage were featured in most, if not all, television airings of the film. None of the following scenes have ever been available on DVD.[19][20] The first TV version aired on September 15, 1991, on NBC-TV. The profanity in it was re-dubbed with milder obscenities and phrases.


  1. "PROBLEM CHILD (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. August 22, 1990. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  2. "Box office / business for Problem Child (1990)". Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  4. "An Adopted Boy-and Terror Begins". 1988-01-04. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  5. "An Adopted Boy-and Terror Begins". 1988-01-04. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  6. 1 2
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
  8. "Problem Child Is Coming Back In This Form". 2014-10-02. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  9. "'Problem Child' Turns 25: Director on John Ritter Ad-Libs, Test Audience Walkouts". Hollywood Reporter. 2015-07-26. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  10. "'Ghost' Hovers Behind No. 1 'Presumed Innocent' : WEEKEND BOX OFFICE". The Los Angeles Times. 1990-07-31. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  11. "Problem Child". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  12. "Problem Child". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 Mathews, Jack (1990-08-11). "The Problem With Universal's 'Problem Child'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  14. "‘Problem Child’ (PG)". The Washington Post. 1990-07-28. C1 control character in |title= at position 1 (help)
  15. Hunt, Dennis (1991-02-21). "VIDEO RENTALS : Three New Players Enter the Top Five". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  16. " version 9". Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  17. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 30, 2011. Retrieved July 26, 2008.
  18. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 30, 2011. Retrieved July 26, 2008.
  19. "Problem Child Official Trailer #1 - Jack Warden Movie (1990) HD". YouTube. 2012-01-09. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  20. "Problem Child 1 Deleted Scenes". YouTube. 2011-11-04. Retrieved 2016-05-12.

External links

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