Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Falling Down" (1993)

Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall and Rachel Ticotin
Written by Ebbe Roe Smith
Directed by Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher is one of those filmmakers whose wildly inconsistent body of work leads to a lot of negativity surrounding his name.  Having directed two infamously awful Batman movies, he went on to do a short string of failures, which pretty much negated all the positive cred he'd built up with hits like "St. Elmo's Fire," "The Lost Boys" and "A Time to Kill."  But we tend to forget that he is actually a capable film director, having made the aforementioned films, as well as smaller movies like "Phone Booth" and "Falling Down."

Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) is having a bad day.  Sitting in traffic in the sweltering Los Angeles heat, surrounded by noise and aggravations at every turn, he finally snaps, leaving his car in the middle of the road and wandering off and muttering something about "going home."  Dressed simply, with a white shirt and tie, carrying a briefcase, he walks into a nearby convenience store to get change for a payphone.  When he learns that his purchase of a can of Coke won't give him enough change for the phone, he loses it completely, smashing up the store's displays with a baseball bat and ranting about inflation and the fact that the Korean store owner can barely speak English.  But Foster pays for the Coke (the price he wants to pay, not the price set by the store owner) and leaves. 

Not long after, he has an encounter with two gang members who claim that he's trespassing on their territory.  Foster beats them with a baseball bat he took from the Korean store owner.  Not long after that, the gang attempts to retaliate with a drive-by shooting, but Foster escapes unscathed and steals a bag of firearms from them.  All of these incidents begin to add up for retiring Police Detective Prendergast (Robert Duvall) and his former partner Torres (Rachel Ticotin) who are investigating the various incidents involving Foster.  Eventually, we discover that Foster is walking to his ex-wife's house, trying to make it home in time for his daughter's birthday party.

As Foster gets closer and closer to his ex-wife's house, he becomes more unstable, reacting more violently to things that provoke him.  Prendergast and Torres seem to be the only ones who understand how dangerous this situation could get, as the other cops write off his theories and mock him openly about his controlling wife. 

"Falling Down" is a fairly interesting, if messy, picture.  It sports a solid cast and a number of memorable ideas and set pieces, but it doesn't really come together as well as it could.  Schumacher does an excellent job building atmosphere and tone, making the film feel just as oppressive as the world around Foster feels.  The problem with the film is really that it just takes a bit too long to really go anywhere, which is bizarre since the whole thing is under two hours anyway.  Much of this is the fault of early scenes involving Prendergast, the other cops and Prendergast's wife that don't seem particularly well conceived.  Another issue is that Foster's rants regarding the economy, construction budgets, fast food advertising, etc, can sometimes seem blunt and forced. 

Foster himself is an interesting creation.  He's almost less a sympathetic character and more an object for the audience's pity.  Here's a man who's lost everything after always doing what he's been told, and he wonders, "I'm the bad guy?  How did that happen?"  The frustrations of "the working stiff" have broken him, leaving him only with a barely controlled rage and a weariness.  But he's able to leave his path of destruction most likely because he's an unassuming looking white male in a shirt and tie.  There's an anonymity to the character, and the truth is that he is the bad guy, which makes it hard associate with him as a protagonist. 

Duvall's wimpy Detective Prendergast is rather similar.  He's a man who's been walked on and bullied by everyone in his life except his partner.  Over the course of the film, he'll grow a spine, and by the end he's managed to stand up to his coworkers, his boss and even his mentally unstable wife.  The happy ending in "Falling Down" belongs to Prendergast, who we realize perhaps a bit too late is the actual protagonist of the story.  That reversal is part of what makes "Falling Down" interesting, but it doesn't handle it deftly enough to make the twist "great" rather than "interesting."

"Falling Down" works fine enough as a drama or as a thriller, but for all its interesting ideas and fine performances, and even an excellent sense of atmosphere, it just doesn't live up to its potential.