Insomniac Movie Theater: Clifford

Tonight’s entry comes at the behest of my Mr. Eric Melin, who assured me that 1994’s “Clifford” would be the kind of cult romp practically made for Insomniac Movie Theater. And boy, is it ever.

“Clifford” features the dynamite comedy duo of Martin Short and Charles Grodin, the former enjoying the last bit of comedic magnetism before slipping into temporary obscurity, the latter enjoying the sweet success of the Beethoven franchise before disappearing into long-term obscurity.

Short plays the titular character, first as a geriatric priest, and then, more famously, as prepubescent boy despite being 44 years old at the time of movie’s release. The premise is simple enough: Short’s Clifford is a terrible child who desperately wants to go to Dinosaur World, a dinosaur theme park. His uncle, played by Grodin, wants to prove to his fiance Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) that he’s ready for children, so he offers to look after Clifford for a week while his parents are in Hawaii.

But wackiness ensues, as it’s known to do in movies like this, but in “Clifford” wackiness takes a much different form. Clifford is a sociopath; a calculating, mercilessly vengeful little bastard that stops at nothing to get what he wants. And when his uncle postpones their trip to Dinosaur World, Clifford snaps.

During the movie’s remaining hour, Clifford gets his uncle arrested, tricks him into travelling to San Francisco, destroys his life’s work, and most devious of all, convinces his fiance that he molested Clifford, or rather, allowed a biker gang to do so.

On paper, the movie has all the trappings of a fantastic black comedy in the same vein as Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things,” but despite the movie’s best efforts, it can’t escape the comedic vacuum of Short’s gimmickry. The script and director Paul Flaherty bend over backwards to incorporate all of Short’s well-worn foolishness: he awkwardly dances, he does over-reaching impressions, constant pratfalls –– essentially everything he’d been doing since his SCTV days (where Flaherty was a director). Take for instance this scene:

Despite scenes like that, there are some genuine laughs in “Clifford,” mostly because of Grodin, who may only be capable of one kind of character, but he plays that character remarkably well. And cheap shots aside, Short and Grodin do work well together, when Grodin is commanding the scene and Short is reacting. This scene perfectly displays both Short’s ham-handedness and Grodin’s timing and ability as a straight man.

In terms of legendarily weird movies, “Clifford” is required viewing, if only for the fact that Short plays a character at least 40 years younger than his age at the time of filming and every actor is required to pretend that the idea isn’t preposterous. That alone is worth the price of admission –– or in this case, a Netflix stream. But past that is a movie that is largely wasted potential. It’s understandable why the movie didn’t go darker. Short had an image at the time of being a goofy character actor that starred in goofy, but family-friendly movies. Grodin was coming off the Beethoven sequel and was two years away from his CNBC talk show.

That said, had “Clifford” gone further, maybe it would have more to say for itself than a middle-aged, preteen protagonist. At least Grodin’s funny.


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