Michael Douglas upbeat about ugliness in 'Falling Down'

February 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

NEW YORK — "I knew," says director Joel Schumacher, whose powerful and disturbing "Falling Down" opens Friday, "that we had to have someone with . . . edge."

Yet when you look at Hollywood's champion of edge in the flesh, edge is the furthest thing from your mind and flesh is the nearest.

Up close, without a script to give him cynical lines and a camera to emphasize the planes of his face, Michael Douglas seems almost fragile, in the way that many handsome men seem. He's . . . just flesh, thin to the point of scrawniness, dressed like a Gilman sophomore with a haircut at least as expensive as his sweater, which is also very expensive, worn with jeans and a clunky pair of hiking boots -- you know, the prep-punk look, very with-it in 15- and 48-year-old circles.

But a slight tremor of awkwardness curdles through his voice and a kind of choky tentativeness seems to clog his joints as he sits down. Almost as a defense mechanism, this Oscar-winning actor and producer has brought along a can of chocolate peanuts which he offers to the press.

It's like, if I give you candy, will you be nice to me?

First question: Michael, you are completely the creation of your movie star father, you never worked for anything in your life, you are far luckier than talented.

How does that feel?

"It feels . . . good."

No, no, no, no. It didn't happen, he wasn't asked that question, it was all nice and polite, something like, "Michael, how do you pick such interesting parts?"

And the part is interesting. In "Falling Down," Douglas plays one of those paragons of repression, a middle-aged, white man who has played by the rules his whole life, who wakes up one morning to find that it's all been taken away from him. Behind his black-framed glasses and under his square john flattop, he begins to deconstruct, his interior plutonium exponentially chain-reacting toward melt-down; as he wanders Los Angeles from the freeway to the coast in search of salvation, he begins to veer from scene to scene of ever-escalating violence. He's like a Pac-Man nerd in a Hieronymus Bosch hell-scape.

The movie has ugliness galore, as much of his resentment is racial, gender-based or ethnic: He brutalizes an Asian merchant with a baseball bat, he engages in a running gun battle with Mexican gang members, he terrifies his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey). He becomes a kind of avenging avatar of the lost, white middle class and is surprised to discover, at the end of the long day's killing, that he is not the good guy.

"I'd been thinking about the loss of the middle class for the last two or three years," Douglas says, with the thoughtfulness of the old Michael Douglas who starred in dreary duds like "The Star Chamber," about earnest, educated people. "But that was more the state of the nation, big, generalized and abstract. At the same time, as an actor, I was looking for an active role. I'd had a big hit in 'Basic Instinct,' but it was an internal, passive kind of role. So when I read the script and thought it was really well-written, I also saw that it combined the kind of social concern I had with my need for an active role. It all came together."

Being an ugly movie, of course, the movie has its risk factor, which doesn't daunt Douglas in the least.

"I do think it's a risk, appearing as such a grotesque character, but I've taken a lot of risks. I think that's part of my responsibility, to push the envelope. All my successes have one thing in common: they weren't easy pictures to get made. For me that's part of the satisfaction. I've been fortunate that my most ambitious movies are the ones I'm proudest of. And if my name can 'open' a movie [generate large opening weekend audiences], that's because people think it's a good movie, not because I'm in it."

Douglas' career has indeed gotten hot since he added "edge" -- attitude, surliness, a kind of existential glow -- to the repertoire.

In "Romancing the Stone," he played a stupid, immoral but charming adventurer; in "Wall Street," his Oscar-winning performance, a greedy stock market manipulator; in "War of the Roses" a bleakly angry, married man locked in mortal combat with his wife; in "Black Rain," a snarly, cynical and crooked New York cop; and, in "Basic Instinct," a cynical, snarly and kinky L.A. cop.

But "Falling Down" does go further, showing the ugliness of race and class hatred, particularly as it aims white rage at ethnic groups.

"I don't think this movie justifies racism -- it's just a reality that it acknowledges. The scenes with the ethnic groups will be recognizable to most people. But I trust the audience will know that it's just an image."

Told that the movie isn't politically correct along doctrinaire liberal lines, Douglas responds, "I think 'political correctness' is a pipe dream, not a reality. The fact is, lots of people aren't getting the changes in our society. Any time you do a movie about a trek through an urban situation, it's got to be tough."

He also thinks audiences will react to the black comic aspects of the movie, as when his anonymous hero, who has missed the magic 10:30 a.m. cutoff for breakfast in a fast food joint, pulls the old 9mm Intratec semiautomatic and remodels the place so al fresco dining is now available.

"You can never underestimate an audience. Lots of people out there have sick senses of humor. This isn't a big city story -- it's story for anyone who's ever been in a city or a traffic jam or a a MacDonald's after they shut off the breakfast."

Next up for Douglas is a long vacation.

"I'm taking a break. I'm tired. I just want to be with my wife and son."

But one goal remains elusive.

"I'd like very much to do a film with my dad, and we continue to look hard for a project to do together. But it has to be perfect. It's a one-shot deal. We don't want to mess it up."

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