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Case Number 03172

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Drop Dead Fred

Artisan // 1991 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // August 8th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

Dishes. Relationships. Wind. This guy breaks everything.

Opening Statement

Rik Mayall is Drop Dead Fred. Phoebe Cates is Drop Dead Gorgeous. This movie is Drop Dead on Arrival.

Facts of the Case

Elizabeth Cronin (Phoebe Cates, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Gremlins) is having one of those Murphy's Law kinda days. To wit:

• Her husband Charles (Tim Matheson, who lost the Vice Presidency on The West Wing for exactly this sort of indiscretion) just dumped her for the bimbo (Bridget Fonda in a cute unbilled cameo) with whom he's been carrying on a not-all-that-secret affair.
• Her purse just got stolen from her car.
• Her car just got stolen from a downtown street corner.
• She just got fired from her job as a courtroom recorder.
• Her best friend Janie (Carrie Fisher, no doubt delighted to see someone having a worse time than her character in The Blues Brothers) muddles the situation with off-the-wall advice: "Pain is our friend. It's our humanity. Think of Elvis." (When Elizabeth reminds her that Elvis killed himself, Janie shrugs it off with, "Yes, but before that he was very interesting.")

At her wits' end, Elizabeth moves back home with her autocratic mother Polly (Marsha Mason, The Goodbye Girl, 2 Days in the Valley). It's at Polly's house that Elizabeth renews her acquaintance with her imaginary friend from her childhood, Drop Dead Fred (English comedian Rik Mayall). Fred is a whirling dervish of destructive energy, a one-geek wrecking crew who can't be seen or heard by anyone except Elizabeth, but whose trail of shattered china, splattered food, and canine offal is obvious to everyone else…all of whom, of course, blame Elizabeth for the havoc.

As Elizabeth struggles to reassemble her life, including a budding romance with a long-lost sweetheart (Ron Eldard, Black Hawk Down, Ghost Ship), Drop Dead Fred's incessant meddling threatens to drive what's left of Lizzie's fragile sanity over the brink of madness.

The audience's, too.

The Evidence

In the acclaimed reference book, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the statistician author highlights several star-crossed baseball personalities with the question, Could I try this career over? Had Phoebe Cates been a baseball player, this question would appear next to her biography in James's book. Rarely has a film performer with such competent acting talent, heart-stopping beauty, and onscreen charisma been relegated to such a skein of appallingly skunky flicks: Paradise, Private School, Date with an Angel, Bright Lights, Big City, Bodies, Rest and Motion, and the cynical, vicious-spirited Gremlins and its abysmal sequel. Small wonder Cates shucked the movie marquee in 1994 for the life of a soccer mom, raising her children with costar-for-life Kevin Kline. Suburbia may not be as exciting as the silver screen, but it's infinitely less embarrassing.

Amid the muck and mire of the above-mentioned Hollywood masterworks, poor Phoebe found herself shackled to the relentlessly mirth-free comic fantasy Drop Dead Fred. (Perhaps Cates signed some kind of perverse pact with the devil—in exchange for becoming one of the world's most attractive women, she surrendered her theatrical agent's soul. Oops, sorry…I used the words "soul" and "theatrical agent" in the same sentence. My bad.) Strive as she might to persevere against insurmountable odds—a nasty, witless script; clumsy, pretentious direction; the dorkiest possible wardrobe; a costar who never met a piece of scenery he couldn't masticate within an inch of its life—the luminous Ms. Cates can't save this dreadful skullcrusher from its destiny as the cinematic equivalent of brake drums grinding against metal.

Somewhere in this cesspool floats the kernel of a novel idea: the demonic outward manifestation of the inward turmoil of a person on the ragged precipice of mental breakdown, a woman whose repressive upbringing trapped her at the emotional level of a put-upon preschooler. Perhaps Drop Dead Fred would have worked better as a serious drama—its psychological baggage is simply too weighty for a flick this insubstantial. (Actually, I think someone made that other film: it's Donnie Darko.) We get the moral of the story, all right—thanks to her martinet mother and passive father, Lizzie never really grew up, and Drop Dead Fred is the personification of that troubled inner child. The movie hammers away at that point like Hephaestus at the forge. Elizabeth dresses in pinafores, bobby sox, and Keds. At 26, she still wears her hair with the peekaboo bangs and gigantic bows of her younger self. The childhood bedroom to which she retreats when her marriage implodes hasn't changed one whit since she was five. (Which is doggoned peculiar if you think about it—did Elizabeth really spend her adolescent years amid all this little-girl decor? And didn't this ever strike any of her teenaged friends as weird?)

Dutch director Ate de Jong seemingly has no idea how to manufacture a coherent narrative. He sends the storyline off for interminable flashback sequences showing Drop Dead Fred's antics when Elizabeth was small. The problem is, we don't need to see these—we understand them from the dialogue, as well as from everything Fred does once he reenters Lizzie's world. The interruptions are too frequent, far too lengthy, serve only as exposition rather than as events, and have the effect of slamming to a standstill what little forward motion the picture has. de Jong lets Mayall run amok with his repetitive shenanigans, when he might be more effective in tiny doses sprinkled judiciously throughout the film. Drop Dead Fred therefore becomes the focus of the picture instead of Elizabeth, which is exactly backward—imagine if Harvey had been all about the invisible rabbit, instead of about the psyche of the poor fellow who believes he sees him.

And Mayall…no surprise this clown never got to star in another movie in America. He makes Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore look like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, for pity's sake. To paraphrase a famous line from a film that was actually funny: Loud, gross, and stupid is no way to go through life, son. And speaking of Keaton—Michael this time—were I the erstwhile Beetlejuice star, and I ever ran into Rik Mayall at a cocktail party, I'd thrash the living daylights out of him for swiping my shtick and making it look forced and lame. Marsha Mason, Tim Matheson, and Carrie Fisher (another Could I try this career over? case) gain another notch on their SAG cards and hope their paychecks clear. Ex-VP Fritz Mondale's daughter Eleanor stops by to sniff out campaign contributions. Everyone seems to be looking for the imaginary exit.

Artisan apparently saw as little value in Drop Dead Fred as the Judge did, because the notoriously thrifty distribution outfit wasted no expense in turning the film into a viable DVD experience. The transfer flat-out stinks. Made from source material a Cub Scout troop used for spitball practice, it's hacked-and-scanned, pockmarked, washed out in some spots, murky in others, and fraught with more halos than an Anaheim Angels game. The sound quality of the two-channel Dolby mix is canned and maddeningly inconsistent—I realize the dialogue is moronic, but I would actually like to hear it all clearly if I'm stuck watching this atrocity. And extras? We don't need no stinkin' extras.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Is there anyone here who still doubts that Kevin Kline is the most undeservedly fortunate man on the face of the planet?

I didn't think so.

Closing Statement

A film with a title one word too long. If you're determined to catch Phoebe Cates in something other than the infamous crimson bikini from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, track down a copy of the delightful Princess Caraboo, her final pre-retirement picture. That, or rent Drop Dead Fred, scan to Phoebe's first closeup, and hit Pause. Spare yourself the agony of two hours with her imaginary friend.

The Verdict

The Court finds Drop Dead Fred guilty of perpetrating imaginary comedy in the first degree. Rik Mayall and Ate de Jong are remanded to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security for deportation. Phoebe Cates earns the sympathy of the Judge for not quitting the business three years sooner. We stand in recess.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 68
Audio: 62
Extras: 0
Acting: 63
Story: 58
Judgment: 59

Perp Profile

Studio: Artisan
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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