Pity the Warner Bros. marketing department with this one, which at first comes across like a mean-spirited black comedy and then snowballs into a reasonably powerful portrait of social alienation. The movie’s tone proves so unremittingly dour, however, it’s unlikely the public will be there at the finish — at least, not enough beyond the art-house crowd to prevent this Michael Douglas odyssey from stumbling at the box office.
If nothing else, “Falling Down” merits honorable mention as one of the more bitter, darkly tinged major studio releases in recent memory–with elements of victim revenge fantasies and xenophobia, and seemingly more than a little ambivalent on both fronts.
Initially, Douglas’ character appears to be a latter-day Howard Beale, suddenly mad as hell and not about to take it anymore. Seeking to journey to Venice from near downtown Los Angeles, he abandons his car in bumper-to-bumper morning traffic and begins his on-foot journey, venting his anger and frustration at all those he encounters.
At first, the premise seems to owe a debt to “After Hours”– or perhaps more accurately, before hours. As the action progresses, however, more and more is revealed about Douglas’ virtually nameless character, a laid-off defense worker, estranged from his wife and child, with a propensity for violence.
In short, this isn’t a character acting out fantasies of the downtrodden but rather a self-obsessed walking powder keg — heading to a home that isn’t his anymore — on the verge of going off.
That explosion takes place in stages, as the character lashes out at various symbols (an uncooperative Korean store owner, two Latino gang members, a smirking fast-food restaurant manager and, for the sake of balance, some rich white folks).
Though he starts out protesting about his “rights as a consumer,” he ends up angry at everything, until he’s finally armed with a bag full of automatic weapons and the disquieting attitude that there’s no turning back.
Actor-turned-screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith and director Joel Schumacher set up a parallel structure through another powerless and frustrated character, Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a henpecked burglary cop in his last day on the job. It’s Prendergast, himself about to be put out to pasture, who ultimately unravels the strange quest and seeks to stem its course.
Despite the sense of menace that follows Douglas’ character, one can’t escape the feeling that the filmmakers have erred in the setup, making the audience follow a dispirited man across a landscape occupied by unsavory and ruthless characters. (Frederic Forrest tops that roster as a white supremacist, though his world view doesn’t necessarily seem all that different from Douglas’ own.)
Yet if “Falling Down” (the title is derived from the song about London Bridge) is about the destruction of one man’s American dream, it feels too much like the curtain is ringing down for all of us — hardly a message people will line up to embrace. Put another way, one might feel uncomfortable sitting next to someone for whom this has the ring of truth.
Aside from the movie’s pervading bitterness, Schumacher also creates a rather uneven tone, with a few darkly comic flourishes early and nothing to laugh about later on.
Film does provide Douglas a real performer’s showcase, and he delivers a strong and intense portrayal of this walking time bomb, losing himself within the character. Duvall is at his congenial best, though Prendergast begins as such a passive figure he inspires scant empathy.
The most notable supporting players are Rachel Ticotin as Duvall’s former partner and Tuesday Weld in a remarkably unflattering turn as his skittish wife. Barbara Hershey is largely wasted as the protagonist’s ex.
Tech credits are solid, though some of the David Lynchian close-ups feel heavy-handed, a criticism that applies in part to the whole production.