1994 Directed by Paul Flaherty. Starring Martin Short, Charles Grodin, Mary Steenburgen, Dabney Coleman.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., April 8, 1994
When Clifford is good, he's very, very good, but when he is bad, he's… rather a mediocre little fellow. Actually, it isn't Clifford himself who's weak but the film that bears his name. As the titular ten-year-old terror, Martin Short is wired, warping in from somewhere between Seventies Vegas and Fifties Hollywood to put his kitschy comic spin on the creature called “the problem child.” And who better to play an obnoxious brat than the creator of giddy, mildly unsettling man-child Ed Grimley? Short's much more engaging -- and disturbing -- than most child actors playing wicked kids. In fact, in a Bad Seed by Bad Seed comparison, Short blasts li'l Mac Culkin out of the psycho ward. Get a load of the way Short whips out his cherry red recorder and toots a leprechaunish air. Or how, when his uncle (Grodin) challenges him to put on a human face for five seconds, Clifford can't, and Short shifts through a succession of expressions that look like they belong on bad Mervyn's mannequins. Now, that's weird. But as in many comedies, the material can't match the shining star. This is a mishmash of kid comedy, adult romance, and spoof, mixing Clifford's efforts to get to Dinosaurworld with Grodin and Steenburgen's love story and merry spritzes of Short shtick (skipping through a train station singing “San Francisco, open your Golden Gates!”). It plays like the creators wanted to pull off another Pee-wee's Big Adventure, a film for kids with twisted satire and surrealism for adults, all about a goofy, goony kid character acted by a grown-up. There's even a Tim Burton-ish scene with dinosaurs, tilted camera, garish colored lights, and Burton's “funny/creepy” sensibility. But Clifford plays it too safe to be Pee-wee. Grodin's a fine foil and Steenburgen has some lovely, loopy bits, but their characters are handled mildly, almost naturalistically, and that spills onto Clifford, too. Which is deadly here: naturalism shackles Short's creativity. Better for Clifford to have been an Airplane!-style spoof of The Bad Seed with a hundred clunker gags than this muddle. At least then, we might have seen Martin unbound.