Falling Down opens with a jarring close-up of Michael Douglas’ lower lip. It’s an angry lip — drawn down to one side, trembling with impacted rage. As the camera pulls back, we see Douglas, sweaty and miserable, trapped in a car on a jammed L.A. freeway. Sporting a crew cut as flat as a freshly mowed lawn, he looks like a high school math teacher from 1958. It’s clear, though, that this mildly attired straight arrow is about to blow his entire fuse box. The cars, the heat, the faulty air conditioner — they’re all feeding his ire. Oh, and let’s not forget the fly. It keeps landing on Douglas’ neck and buzzing, louder and louder and louder…
Falling Down has barely begun, and already we’re up to our eyeballs in lurid paranoia. As that overwrought opening winds down, Douglas grabs his briefcase, leaves his car on the highway, and proceeds to go on a violent rampage around Los Angeles, taking aim at all the violent/trashy/irritating aspects of contemporary American life. His first stop is a Korean-owned grocery store, where the cashier refuses to change a dollar and can’t even pronounce the phrase ”85 cents” (he says ”eighty-figh!”). Horrors! So Douglas goes wild with a baseball bat, smashing his goods, yelling about what things used to cost back in the old days. The scene is played for a bullying comic charge. We’re invited to laugh at Douglas’ deranged overreaction, yet the film also nudges us to identify with his tantrum, to indulge our secret desire to see a foreign cashier get his.
Falling Down is a brutally manipulative revenge fantasy, a piece of comic-strip demagoguery that teeters uneasily on the brink of satire. The movie takes the form of a nihilistic road movie, with Douglas encountering various rude nemeses and picking up weapons along the way. A couple of Hispanic toughs try to rough him up; he shows them the thick end of his bat. A fast-food restaurant won’t serve him breakfast because the official lunch hour began just two minutes before; Douglas expresses his disappointment with a few strategic gunshots. A construction worker won’t let him pass, even though the worker admits he’s just wasting public funds; Douglas lets fly with a bazooka. Meanwhile, in a lightweight parallel plot, his spree is being tracked by a genial cop (Robert Duvall) on his last day before retirement.
Before long, it’s clear that the movie’s satirical targets are all going to be broad, easy ones. Everyone Douglas meets is loud and obnoxious: a young wastrel who begs for food while stuffing a sandwich down his throat (now that’s a problem in our society — greedy homeless people), some snobbish golfers, a crazed neo-Nazi (Frederic Forrest). This is a movie that thinks it’s scoring points by turning everyone into jerks and then saying we live in a jerky world. Falling Down is too cartoonish and blunt-witted to take seriously, yet there’s a disturbing fascist element at its core: The film glorifies Douglas’ crusade and shears his victims of their humanity — it never suggests that they’re trapped in the same crumbling, oppressive society that he is. Falling Down seems to have taken its tone from the glib, rabble-rousing self-righteousness of talk radio. Instead of a coherent point of view, it offers gripes. The one true novelty is Douglas’ appearance. The image of this Eisenhower-era nebbish stalking through the rubble of modern L.A. has a pungent, sci-fi aura — it’s The Twilight Zone meets Dirty Harry.
Douglas, in fact, is playing an image more than a character. Throughout the movie, he is never named, and we learn only a couple of things about him: He was recently fired from his job with a defense contractor, and he’s desperate to get back together with his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey), who left him because of violent inclinations he’d exhibited during their marriage. Nothing in Falling Down is very believable, least of all that Douglas, with his saturnine dementia, was ever married to a flower like Hershey. Yet director Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners) isn’t aiming for realism; in his slick way, he’s attempting to do a mythical dark satire. And Douglas’ performance is effective. Letting his eyes well up with sadness and fury, he’s an Ordinary American-turned-passionate zombie.
Falling Down uses the fact that Douglas has gone psycho to take the sting out of its own viciousness. After all, he can hardly be held responsible for his actions if he’s out of his mind. At the same time, the movie is saying, He’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore. Demagogic shallowness has its appeal, and Falling Down could turn out to be the Network of the ’90s. In the closing credits, Douglas’ character is listed as D-FENS (the letters on his license plate). The meaning couldn’t be clearer: He isn’t the true aggressor here, he’s merely a defender, striking back at a lousy world. By the end, you may wish he’d just gone home and popped a couple of Excedrin instead. C