|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
In ‘Falling Down,’ Michael Douglas plays Bill Foster, a white-collar worker who, stuck in L.A. freeway gridlock one morning, loses it. He stomps out of his car and heads into a neighborhood liquor store. He wants to buy a can of soda for 50 cents, reckoning that he can use the change to make a phone call. The problem is that the price of the soda is 85 cents, which Foster feels is exorbitant and also won’t leave him enough change for the phone call. Foster responds first by verbally abusing the shopkeeper, who is Korean, for his imperfect English pronunciation and grammar. Foster then proceeds to bust up the place with a baseball bat before getting the terrified proprietor to say that the price of the soda is 50 cents after all.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this scene dramatically - except that writer Ebbe Roe Smith, director Joel Schumacher and actor Douglas play it for laughs, inviting us to sympathize with the stressed-out Foster. Foster’s first anti-social act, leaving his car abandoned in traffic, is a secret fantasy of many drivers, but the scene in the liquor store is handled in the same tone. Speaking personally, it has never been a fantasy of this reviewer to insult someone for their country of origin, their pronunciation of English (if I were in Korea, I doubt my Korean would be a tenth as good as the shopkeeper’s English) or to destroy a shop because the owner charges the same rates as a 7-11.
Foster, it turns out, has lost his job and custody of his daughter. Foster’s wife (Barbara Hershey) has a restraining order against him, but Foster keeps calling the house, saying he’s on his way home to see their daughter on her birthday. Foster’s trajectory takes him through some of L.A.’s rougher neighborhoods, where he encounters a variety of gun-toting miscreants. Eventually, the LAPD become involved, requiring a return to action from a wise officer (Robert Duvall) who’s on the brink of retirement.
Duvall is such a terrific actor that he does a lot to elevate ‘Falling Down,’ but even his sequences play like a parody of a bad TV episodic, or a precursor of ‘Scream,’ with all of his colleagues noting the cliché of what happens to good cops on the day they’re supposed to hang up the shield for good. Foster’s adventures leave one slack-jawed with incredulity. We gradually gather that, yes, we are indeed supposed to see him as a man tragically pushed over the edge by the evils, large and small, of modern society. We’re not meant to see him as a racist (he is appalled when he runs into a Nazi-sympathizing store owner who fancies Foster is a kindred spirit) and we’re meant to feel for his quest to reunite with his family.
To be fair, the filmmakers do sometimes try to be even-handed. Foster’s wife is increasingly frustrated with her attempts to get police protection because her husband has never actually injured her; Foster inadvertently scares a lot of decent people; the Duvall character’s partner, played by the excellent Rachel Ticotin, is a Latina. Still, on the one hand, we’re expected to seriously contemplate Foster’s mental state, while at the same accepting the way the film overtly stacks the deck. When Latino gangbangers try to shoot Foster, they hit lots of innocent bystanders, but when Foster fires off semi-automatic rounds in a fast-food joint, no one is hit by ricochets; when he blasts a construction line with a bazooka, the workers all miraculously escape injury.
The bazooka blast itself, in Chapter 23, is sonically decent, though unexceptional. The subtler sound effects in ‘Falling Down’ actually may be the best, starting with the almost undetectable acceleration of noise at the beginning of the film, going from dead silence to maddening din. There are some very precisely defined knife clicks in Chapter 5, good helicopter rotor sounds in Chapter 17 and an interesting sonic kick during the Chapter 33 closing credits, as the soundtrack changes abruptly from soft to speaker-shaking.
‘Falling Down’ seems intended as an examination of conflicting morals and social pressures, but it plays out as an argument that would lose in a high school debate class. However, its larger sin is that, Duvall and Ticotin aside, it is well-made but pretty dull throughout.