You Know, For The Kids? Case File #20: Clifford
Adult actors playing children are almost invariably creepy. Grown men and women given the undignified burden of impersonating kids understandably lean toward broad mugging and outsized caricatures heavy on wide-eyed innocence, adorable lisps, and broadly telegraphed obnoxiousness. Play a tot too seriously or subtly and how is anyone even supposed to know you’re playing a kid? Better, then, to dress in overalls and mug to the rafters.
Adults portraying children consequently tends to work best in the context of sketch comedy and theatrical performances. The original cast of Saturday Night Live was aces at playing children, especially the girlish Gilda Radner. Radner also had the considerable advantage of only having to sustain the illusion for the length of a sketch. Live shows, meanwhile, benefit from the greater leeway audiences tend to grant performers who are in their faces, not captured for posterity on television and film. The physical intimacy of theater tends to make even the artificial and unreal seem more palatable, even if it’s a 40-year-old with a mortgage pretending to be a kindergartner or Charlie Brown.
Over the course of 90 minutes, however, the cognitive dissonance engendered by watching 40-something comedy lifer Martin Short pretend to be a monstrous 10-year-old boy, as the SCTV veteran does in the disastrous 1994 dark comedy Clifford, becomes too much to bear. As with Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, it’s impossible to get beyond the jarring incongruity of a middle-aged man pretending to be a child-like spirit for a full hour and a half.
Clifford’s miscalculation—and if there’s one quality most My World Of Flops subjects share, it’s a staggering level of miscalculation—begins with its title. When naming a film for children, it’s generally not wise to choose a title already associated with a beloved children’s favorite. Clifford shares the name of a big red dog from children’s books, but otherwise has nothing to do with it. It’s a bit like deciding to make a family movie called Mister Rogers, then explaining to a confused world that it’s about a different Mister Rogers. Let’s say our Mr. Rogers is a janitor who can fly and not the dude with the cardigan.
Clifford is ostensibly a children’s film, but it’s so unrelentingly dark and unsentimental in its depiction of childhood as a festering cesspool of moral corruption and venality that it’s not particularly appropriate viewing for children. Underneath the broad slapstick setpieces and leavening bursts of sentimentality, Clifford is essentially the story of an evil little boy so sociopathic and cruel in his single-minded pursuit of his goals—or rather goal, since Short only wants one thing in the world—that he drives his uncle (a perfectly typecast Charles Grodin as a man perpetually on the verge of a heart attack) to the precipice of justifiable homicide.
Clifford is so persistently nasty that the filmmakers have to posit the film as a morality play in order to render it even vaguely palatable for family audiences. Itbegins with a storybook-style opening crawl:
From the beginning of time, children have dreamed of exciting and perilous adventures. Although the adventures are exciting for the child, they can be perilous for adults. This is one such story. Our tale begins, once upon a time, in the future. The year is 2050.
We then focus on the maudlin image of Martin Short buried under layers of unconvincing old-man make-up as an elderly priest playing with a butterfly before handing down sagacious counsel to a young troublemaker (Boy Meets World star Ben Savage) in hot water for threatening to blow up the school after he’s not allowed on its basketball team. Short then shares the story of his own rebellious youth and unlikely, unearned redemption. Clifford needs to present its protagonist as a reformed figure who learned his lesson or he would be wholly unsympathetic, a psychopath and emotional terrorist so dreadful that when Grodin starts comparing him to Hitler it really doesn’t seem like that hyperbolic of an association.
The film then flashes back to the halcyon days of 1990, where Martin Short (this time in a tie and short pants that make him look like a prep-school reject) torments parents Richard Kind and Jennifer Savidge with his insatiable demands to be taken to a Los Angeles theme park called Dinosaur World while onboard a plane flight to Honolulu. Kind and Savidge appear so despondent from having to raise their hellspawn that they will do anything short of murder to get rid of him, and even murder doesn’t seem like too strong a punishment in light of Short’s transgressions. For Short’s hellion in short pants, the universe exists for one reason: to allow him to achieve his life’s dream of taking his beloved toy dinosaur Stephan to Dinosaur World.
As the 10-year-old Clifford, Short’s eyes are perpetually alight with what can charitably be deemed mischief and more accurately dubbed malice, if not downright insanity. When Short is informed that the plane won’t stop in Los Angeles unless there is an emergency, he heads to the cockpit and somehow manages to shut off the plane’s engines. Then, the fates align for Kind and Savidge when they discover they can unload Short on his uncle (Grodin), a workaholic architect conveniently obsessed with proving to girlfriend Mary Steenburgen that he loves kids and wants to start a family. Despite this claim, he’s hard-pressed to remember the name of a nephew he has only seen once. When Steenburgen asks Grodin the name of the nephew he professes to love so much, Grodin thinks out loud, “I want to say Mason?” with just the right note of non-engagement before remembering that his nephew is named Clifford. Clifford is never funnier than when Grodin is doing a wonderfully unconvincing job of trying to pass himself off as a loving family man. When Grodin tells Short that he loves him and Short replies that they’re essentially strangers, Grodin counters, “I was with you at the christening. I spent the better part of a whole day in your company. I have the utmost admiration for you.”
Short just wants to go to Dinosaur World—where Grodin happened to have designed one of its most prominent exhibits, a T-Rex ride—but when Grodin promises to take him to Dinosaur World, then fails to follow through, Short decides to wage all-out psychological warfare with his prickly, apoplectic uncle. Grodin begins the film doing a slow, subtle burn that grows more intense the more agitated and enraged he gets over Short’s mischief. In a bid to get even, Short resorts to a series of pranks at his uncle’s expense, some relatively harmless and some criminal. At a fancy party, for example, Short switches Grodin’s bloody mary for a heaping helping of Tabasco sauce. On a less harmless note, Short gets his uncle arrested by altering tape of Grodin chewing him out so that it sounds like Grodin is delivering a bomb threat (an arrest that arrives on the heels of another embarrassing incident).
In a deeply committed performance, Short plays childhood as a destructive form of mental illness. He’s creepy when he’s scheming and conniving, but he’s even creepier when he’s trying to be sweet, like when he refers to his mother as “sweet one who birthed me” and his rage-filled, resentful father as “pappy.” Part of what makes Clifford such a watchable perversity is that its protagonist embodies a blatantly anachronistic conception of juvenile delinquency. As the title character, Short is less a contemporary Bart Simpson than Andy Hardy by way of Little Lord Fauntleroy. He spends the entire film in short pants, for instance.
Grodin starts off the movie nervous and frustrated and grows increasingly deranged until a startling climax where a clearly insane Grodin decides to make his nephew’s fondest wish come true in the most sinister possible fashion. Mad with rage, Grodin drives Short to Dinosaur World, which is closed for the evening, and has Short go on his favorite T-Rex ride. At first Short is absolutely delighted. His dream has come true! He’s finally at Dinosaur World! Even more excitingly, he’s the only one there other than his uncle, who got him in because of Grodin’s special relationship with the park. But Grodin does not want Short to be happy. He wants him to suffer the way he has suffered at the hands of his pint-sized tormentor. So he has the T. Rex ride go faster and faster until it’s malfunctioning wildly and threatening to kill Short in the process.
The faster it goes, the more perilous the T-Rex becomes until the ride of Short’s fevered dream becomes a potentially fatal nightmare. In its climax, Clifford turns into a strange shadow of the great Nicholas Ray film Bigger Than Life as Grodin wrestles with the question of whether or not he would be doing the world a favor by murdering a child. Only in this instance, the father figure might actually be justified in murdering his figurative child both for his own sake and for the sake of humanity. By this point, Grodin’s slow burn has long since morphed into insanity. When Short asks for a hug, Grodin counters, “I don’t want to hug you. I can’t imagine anyone everwanting to hug you.” When Grodin tells Short, “You’re not a human boy. You’re just this destructive thing. Eventually everyone just gets to hate you,” he’s not being mean, just accurate.
Like Bigger Than Life—a slightly darker film—Clifford eventually pulls back from the brink. As the opening conveys, Short eventually learns his lesson and switches sides from evil to good. But his last-minute change of heart proves fatally unconvincing, as does Grodin’s decision to forgive Short and have him be the ring-bearer at his wedding to Steenburgen. Clifford ends with Short’s feature-length anecdote moving Savage, who says he’d have to wreak a lot more havoc to match Short’s youthful shenanigans—but he has no interest in that because “I want people to like me.”
Folks did not like Clifford (with the notable exception of WFMU cult hero and The Best Show host Tom Scharpling, who is obsessed with the film). Directed by Paul Flaherty—brother of Short’s SCTV co-star Joe Flaherty and a director for the show himself—it was filmed in 1990 but sat unreleased until 1994 due to the sad state of distributor Orion. Its sorry performance at the box office helped drive a stake into Short’s career as a cinematic leading man, and the film was eviscerated by critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote, “The movie is so odd, it’s almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope.” I agree with Ebert that Clifford is the kind of singular oddity we’ll never see again and concur that that alone makes it worth seeing, but I have a more charitable take on the film. It’s uncompromising in its darkness and cynicism to an almost perverse degree. More than two decades on, we’ve still never anything else like Clifford. For better or worse, I suspect we never will.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Fiascocess