Friday, April 17, 2009

The Arnold Project #9: Junior

In '88 Arnold Schwarzenegger made Twins with Danny DeVito and we loved it; next came Kindergarten Cop, and it was good; then Junior came out, the one where he's pregnant, and he stopped making comedies. What put the nail in that coffin? He doesn't get to shoot anybody or beat them up. Maybe that's it. Junior is still entertaining, but mostly as a curio where we get to see Arnold play a pregnant man. Let me document this disaster for you.
Arnold plays Alex, a research scientist trying to make a fertility drug with his partner Larry (Danny DeVito again). They're testing it on chimps, but after pitching to the FDA they get rejected and shut down. So they continue the experiment, except this time Arnold's the chimp. Originally, they just want to get things started until they can continue research in Canada; but Arnold gets emotionally attached to the little embryo and keeps taking the Expectane drug, to take it to term.
The scientist who takes over their lab is Diana, played as clumsy yet endearing by Emma Thompson; Frank Langella gets to be the bad guy, the snooping University admin who cuts their funding. The script tries to weave several plotlines- a romance between Alex and Diana, hiding from Langella, and Larry's ex-wife Angela getting knocked up byAerosmith to give us a pregnant woman counterpart- and it gets overlong and predictable. But Arnold and Emma hold things together, for the most part.
When you think about it, it's not much of a stretch to think of Arnold as a physical actor. When we use that term we think of Buster Keaton, Johnny Depp, perhaps Jim Carrey- but not Schwarzenegger. We expect him to be pure presence. When we think of him acting physically, we remember his goofy screams, or fighting, but take a closer look. In True Lies for example, he gets great laughs from silent facial expressions between him and Tom Arnold, when he's taking that test drive with Bill Paxton, and famously when he's shot up with truth serum. In Junior he transforms from a bodybuilding champion and action star into a big pencilneck geek. Watch as he walks out of the FDA hearing- he doesn't walk like Arnold, he's an entirely different person.
It's rare that we get to see Arnold act anymore, and the last 3 movies I saw in the theater gave him little to work with- Terminator 3, which lacked Cameron's heart, End of Days where we had an uncomfortable crying scene, and The Sixth Day, which is hard to tell apart from Eraser, because he's playing "The Arnold Character" in both. But Junior- which Roger Ebert gave a surprising 3 1/2 stars- may not be a great movie, but Ebert recognized its strengths. If Arnold's characterization of a research scientist mad enough to inject himself with a fertility drug and carry a child to term can stand up next to Emma Thompson's frazzled incarnation, it's saying something. Maybe Ebert was staring at Emma and playing pocket pool, but I think he was onto something here.
It's not hearing Arnold say things that's funny- though hearing him tell Danny that his nipples are sensitive is enough to give me cramps from laughter- but how well he mimics being a pregnant woman. He plays it completely straight, and subtly. The dialogue actually seems to hamper him. When he's cooped up in DeVito's house during the experiment, his delight at going out to a medical convention is perfect. Soon we really believe that Arnold is carrying a baby. What's unfortunate is the twists the plot takes to make things even more ridiculous, such as hiding Alex at a pregnant woman's retreat, dressed in drag. "I was an athlete on the East German women's Olympic team, and the steroids were handed out like Gatorade."
Ivan Reitman has missed a lot recently, but some of what made his hits hit is here. Unfortunately there's a lot of fluff, too. Danny DeVito deals with his ex-wife Angela, who got knocked up by a member of Aerosmith. The film is too long, too complex and fettered by a clumsy score. I love Emma Thompson, but she's a female Jerry Lewis in this. She actually knocks a waiter's platter up in the air at one point, and dances with toilet paper on her shoe only minutes later. It's not her fault, but the script is very predictable, and that's where the one-joke accusation comes from. Now the concept is a good one, but in a script that tries to be a funny "what if" scenario, then adds slapstick, then overdoes the smarm instead of letting it grow out of Arnold's performance- it's a tough sell. By the 90 minute mark I was writing this review, wishing it was over.

By the time the babies are born it's gone full-bore drama and loses all its comedic touches, which drains all the joy out of it; we're just waiting for the train to come to the station. So while this movie is a triumph for Arnold, it's a letdown as a whole. Paired with Red Heat (full review) it's a fine example of Schwarzenegger restraint, and it's unfortunate that Reitman didn't have the guts to cut the smarm out of the movie and let it remain a comedy. That's what makes it part of the early '90s, I guess.


A montage of pregger Arnie scenes.

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