*. We begin with a nod to 8 1/2, except Michael Douglas’s character isn’t going to be able to float off into the clouds, or even rise above the smog of Los Angeles. This is the film’s original moment of breakdown and it resonates all the more for being set in L.A., so famous for its car culture. Director Joel Schumacher talks about getting things started this way on the DVD commentary track, and how essential a fantasy he thinks it is. We all want to just walk away. That we can’t is something that can lead us to rage at our condition, our feeling of being trapped.
*. This is what William Foster (or D-Fens, as he is credited), and Falling Down more generally, represents: a wish fulfillment fantasy. But as the contrast with 8 1/2 shows, it’s not an escapist fantasy. D-Fens can break the rules and thus gain the super power, as screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith puts it, of being totally fearless. Or of having zero fucks to give, to be more precise. But he’s on a one-way trip. He can’t get back in his car and re-enter the rat race. Or the human race for that matter.
*. One not incidental side effect of his leaving his car is that Falling Down gives us a different vision of L.A. than we’re accustomed to. A pedestrian vision (it’s noteworthy that at one point D-Fens queues to get on a city bus but then gives up on the idea). On foot, he sees more, experiences more. He is a creature of the sidewalk, not the road.
*. D-Fens is under a lot of stress, having had his marriage break down and losing his job. But he is also, as Schumacher puts it, a dinosaur. His haircut and office attire tell you that (even though his is a look that has dated rather better than that of many of the more fashionable types we see in Falling Down). When he says he wants to roll prices back to 1965 he’s giving you the proper benchmark for the good ol’ days.
*. But while we can feel some sympathy for him (Roger Ebert found “the core of sadness in his soul” to be what made him fascinating), he really is a bad guy. Prendergast is no doubt correct in thinking that his wife’s, and maybe his daughter’s lives are in danger. This is the way such stories usually play out, and D-Fens has, after all, threatened as much.
*. Why do we want to be on Foster’s side so much then? Mainly because of the movie’s fantasy aspect. It is not an escape fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. Nearly everyone Foster meets has a snarling or sneering attitude that we want to join him in wiping from their faces. From low (the simpering manager of the burger joint, the lazy road worker) to high (the privileged old boys at the country club) they are all deserving of a few rounds being fired in their general direction. Is there any reason why the guy waiting for the phone booth has to be such a jerk? Blow it up and let him find another.
*. The revenge fantasy isn’t limited to D-Fens either. Robert Duvall’s Prendergast travels the same arc and experiences the same explosive breakdown: finally getting to tell his nagging wife to shut up, belting his jerky co-worker, and telling his asshole of a boss to fuck off on live TV. He also gets to kill someone, which is something D-Fens only does in a moment of extreme duress.
*. Such a fantasy is a kind of American revolution. D-Fens is big on talking about his rights. It’s the lesson he tries to teach the neo-Nazi. Smashing up the convenience store is just “standing up for his rights as a consumer.” At the fast-food joint he tries to explain how the customer is always right, and feels (justifiably) cheated by his Whammy Burger not looking at all as advertised. He has the feeling that he’s the victim of a giant bait-and-switch. As an American he was promised a dream, but was sold a bill of goods. It’s one thing to rage against immigrants and diversification and political correctness (and 1993 was around the peak of the first wave of political correctness), but it’s something even worse to feel ripped off.
*. It’s an idea with traction, and I think it deserved a better script. Are we meant to feel some solidarity with Prendergast? As I’ve said, he’s bullied as much as Foster is, but he just seems too bland and underwritten to me. Meanwhile, the rest of the people we meet are annoying caricatures. The homophobic Nazi who is a sadistic closet case was a cliché long before this film, or American Beauty. Prendergast’s wife (Tuesday Weld) is excruciating. None of these people are believable. But then, as we’ve established, it’s a fantasy.
*. I had to raise an eyebrow at Lois Smith playing Foster’s mom. She was only 14 years older than Douglas, and doesn’t look it.
*. Script as band-aid: When Prendergast returns to the house and finds Torres only now being taken away on a stretcher after being shot he asks “Still here?” The movie has to throw in that line to acknowledge that the idea that she would still be there is ridiculous.
*. It’s a movie that divided critics at the time, and I think still does. Is it sending up the whole Angry White Man Fights Back trope, or is it indulging it? Richard Schickel: “It’s hard to know how to respond to Falling Down: deplore its crudeness or admire its shrewdness.”
*. David Ansen is one reviewer who wasn’t buying the film’s message. “Falling Down rants with forked tongue. While solemnly condemning racism and violence, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to play on the audience’s most paranoid instincts. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as simply a dumb (though expertly photographed) junk movie. But its pretensions render it pernicious. Pandering to the Zeitgeist, it becomes part of the problem it pretends to address.”
*. I don’t know if there’s any way out of this bind. Just look at the film’s poster, with Foster striking a pose like a new Statue of Liberty, representing a different set of values. Irony? Well, yes. But enough?
*. Here’s Roger Ebert providing an example of the kind of knots critics found themselves in: “Because the character is white, and many of his targets are not, the movie could be read as racist. I prefer to think of it as a reflection of the real feelings of a lot of people who, lacking the insight to see how political and economic philosophies have affected them, fall back on easy scapegoating.” Easy scapegoating? Isn’t that at least one definition of a racist?
*. My own feeling is that it’s a movie that was trying to have some kind of a political message about hard times in America but that it fails to get that message across. Economic distress, for example, is addressed in a strangely disconnected scene involving some guy protesting at a bank for not being able to get a loan because he was deemed “not economically viable.” What has this to do with the rest of the picture? It seems out of place, since Foster, despite having just lost his job, is not on the street. Meanwhile, the domestic breakdown never really achieves the kind of emotional traction it needs either.
*. The result is that we get to enjoy D-Fens as nerdish vigilante, but don’t relate to him beyond sharing his violent cathartic outbursts at the anger, fear, and contempt he provokes. It’s a movie that seems to want to be about something more but ends up just pushing our buttons.
*. If the political message is mixed the film’s tone is no less fuzzy. At times it plays as a comedy and at others it wants us to take it seriously. Foster’s predicaments can be both silly and threatening, he can be both hero and anti-hero. That makes him dangerous, then and now.