While the nightmare child from hell genre has received its due (“Problem Child” and “Dennis The Menace” being two prominent troublemakers), perhaps none is as demented and strangely twisted like 1994’s Orion Pictures’ notorious bomb and mostly-disregarded comedy “Clifford.”
Upon its release, “Clifford” was a widely derided comedy, savagely panned by critics and ignored by audiences. In the decades since its rather brief theatrical run, “Clifford” has emerged as a cult classic with a fervent fanbase so loud that the film was screened as part of this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, with Short himself looking back at the misunderstood comedy…well, “classic,” may go to far, but you get the point (see below)
Comedian Martin Short is a unique performer, and much like a souped-up guitar amp from “Spinal Tap,” he almost always goes to 11. Short’s unbridled energy and unpredictable mode of performance weren’t conducive to leading roles, and it’s arguably that Hollywood was never able to figure out how to utilize him best (just imaging him vibing and thriving in the Marx Brothers era). Yet, that would change with “Clifford,” where the middle-aged actor starred as a 10-year-old boy opposite Charles Grodin as his perpetually infuriated, ill-tempered uncle Martin.
“Clifford” goes all-in on its concept—maybe one that’s meant to put you off children and the idea of parenting for life— and so much so that its absurdity will either antagonize or bemuse you in a good way. The film provoked famed critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in his review, “The movie is so odd, it’s almost worth seeing just because we’ll never see anything like it again. I hope.” And yet, what Ebert found so bewildering about “Clifford” is exactly why the film has found the dedicated cult following that has grown in recent years. Its starting point—an adult Short playing a 10-year-old boy— is bizarre enough, but director Paul Flaherty pushes the concept to its limits by making its eponymous rapscallion devilishly unbearable; an incorrigible terror who would probably fit better in a horror movie than a comedy. After all, Short doesn’t play Clifford as your average dinosaur-obsessed 10-year-old with his own little quirks. Oh no. Short instead plays Clifford as he’s written—like the spawn of Satan with a maliciously devious streak that’s both delicious and terrifying (the way Short’s nostrils flare every time Martin lambastes his behavior —as if he’s trying to keep the evil at bay or invite it in as you would with a vampire, who know—is uproariously subtle and hilarious).
As much as “Clifford” offers Martin Short a leading role with all the room to give an outsized performance in an undersized role, it’s the legendary deadpan actor Charles Grodin— who passed away last week at the age of 86—that keeps the film and its crazy concept grounded. Grodin’s Martin Daniels is essentially a horror movie protagonist who essentially has inherited a curse for a mentally exhausting, spiritually-draining, never-ending week.
Uncle Martin’s a successful architect whose hard work is about to pay off with a new home, his dream job, and an impending marriage to Sarah (Mary Steenburgen). Martin is the kind of character that Charles Grodin excelled at playing, the cocky, self-satisfied smartest man in the room who doesn’t need to speak to display his intellectual superiority. Martin’s hubris is summed up in a perfect Grodin line delivery. Desperately trying to convince Sarah that he loves children—obviously a great lie from such a self-involved person— Martin says in a panic how much he loves his little nephew. Sarah, having never heard about any nephew, asks for the child’s name. With a hilariously pained expression on his face as he’s pondering his nephew’s name, Martin utters, “I wanna say, Mason…”
And then the phone rings with what feels like sign-of-god good fortune. It’s Martin’s estranged brother (Richard Kind, uncharacteristically short-tempered) asking if he can watch his son for the week. What on its face would seem like a simple family favor quickly devolves into the completely spiritual unraveling of Martin Daniels. Clifford’s parents gleefully celebrate how they’ve purged themselves of their troublesome offspring, as Clifford, hellbent on attending the famous Dinosaur World amusement park he is obsessed with, nearly crashed the commercial airliner they were flying on, purposefully (the plane is forced to into a malevolently calculated emergency landing in Los Angeles, home to… you guessed it, Dinosaur World). Martin will let Clifford into his home, and his reward will be chaos, pestilence, and famine.
Like any horror film, the emotional and psychological terrorism Clifford enacts on his Uncle is subtle initially. At first, it’s just a temper tantrum or a strange off-hand remark about Martin’s boss’ toupee (a wonderful Dabney Coleman). Martin approaches these issues as if they’re just minor hiccups, the actions of a child who doesn’t know any better. Yet, this film continually escalates the hell Martin is subjected to and pushes this character closer and closer to the edge. It’s not long before everything Martin has strived for—the home, the job, the woman—is on the verge of annihilation because of Clifford’s deviously wicked and mischievous actions.
In his little red jacket paired with an adorable bowtie, Clifford has a permanently wide guileless smile that belies his hilariously vindictive black heart to strangers. Like a classic horror film, the audience understands his irredeemably sneaky and underhanded nature—like a young Roger Stone in training—but in the film itself, the character’s ceaseless malice is only visible by Clifford’s worn-down parents and his terrorized uncle.
Charles Grodin is playing an unceasingly exasperated and gaslit hostage; the only sane person in an insane movie (that feels extra relevant in the age of bad-faith political deception). He’s the audience’s surrogate. So much of the film’s comedy comes from Grodin’s Martin trying to make sense of this maniacal boy, such as the classic scene where he berates the insidious child to “act like a human boy” or when he proclaims the best way to pacify the boy is to “give him a ton of sugar and a book about Hitler.”
As any sane person would, Martin begins to look like he’s on the verge of collapse, a nervous breakdown with its own capacity for spiteful revenge against what many still see as an innocent boy. It becomes apparent as Martin’s appearance becomes more and more disheveled, his hair messy with a five o’clock shadow on his weary visage. As much as Charles Grodin can dominate a scene with incensed angst, it’s when the actor isn’t uttering a word that his incredible talent shines through. The swollen vexation, the combustible angst simmering deep within Martin, often surface in Grodin’s wordless, uncontrollable grimaces and groans. You don’t just feel his rage; you understand it on a deep, fundamental level, and you even begin to root for his unhinged need for vindictive retaliation.
The constant escalation culminates in Clifford’s dream trip to Dinosaur World, only as a hostage for his now nearly psychotic Uncle. Martin has been pushed beyond his breaking point and has only one recourse – murder Clifford. It’s a rather dark turn at the film’s climax, but it’s earned. The various horrors have left Martin a shell of his former self and to kill Clifford isn’t just twisted justice for all his scheming crimes but a moral obligation for the good of humanity. Of course, the PG-13 comedy can’t culminate in the brutal murder of a child, no matter how justifiable, so Clifford learns his lesson and strikes a tenuous peace with his Uncle and everyone lives happily ever after.
As much as I love the craziness of “Clifford,” it’s not a completely flawless movie, and it arguably doesn’t go as twisted and insane as it could’ve (it has all the potential to be a “Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure“-like deranged classic, but never quite gets there). The film has bookend scenes set in 2050, with Short playing Clifford as a kindly Jesuit priest. These scenes are meant to provide the film with a framing device, but it’s quite obvious that the scenes exist merely to pad the running time to a neat 90 minutes. These scenes were shot after the film sat for years as its distributor, Orion Pictures, struggled with bankruptcy.
Orion’s biggest ”Clifford” mistake was its marketing. Sold as a family-friendly comedy, the film is so much darker and weirder. Clearly, no one was selling problem child movies as horror films in the 1990s, but it would’ve been an inspired move—there is palpable suspense when a new gag is set up, similar to when a killer enters the house in a slasher flick. Martin Short and Charles Grodin are comedy icons, and “Clifford” is so deftly constructed to gear itself towards its stars’ talents that they consistently deliver big laughs even when a half-hearted plot fails them. Roger Ebert did get one thing right about “Clifford”: without Grodin’s deadpan exasperated artistry, we’ll likely never see anything like it again.