Meanness and mayhem: This 'Dennis' should be left home alone

June 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Dennis the Menace"

1% Starring Walter Matthau and Mason

Gamble

Directed by Nick Castle

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG

... ** John Hughes, who wrote and produced "Dennis the Menace," and Nick Castle, who directed, appear to have searched America high and low and found a child to play the role who looks just like . . . Macaulay Culkin.

Unfortunately, Mason Gamble doesn't look much like Dennis the Menace. That he's blond is his only physical resemblance with the archetypal dynamo of American mischief, but he entirely lacks the famous cowlick, the blurry spray of hair that obscured the upper third of Dennis' face and the upturned, pug nose. More important, he lacks the Dennis fury; he's too busy being cute to be believable.

Yes. Dennis, that blond, pillow-headed font of chaos hailing from the early '50s, has been entirely Culkinized. He's been turned, by Hughes and Castle, into that "Home Alone" kid, where the considerable complexity and innocence of his character has been milled into unremittent hostility and stupidity.

Admittedly, Hughes had a problem: the original Dennis did not exist in a narrative form but in a static one -- the world of the one-frame, punch-line-driven cartoon. Here's how he solved this problem: He didn't. For nearly two-thirds of its running time, the movie could be said to dither and mosey. It's simply a dim and undriven chronicle about the war between Dennis and his equally iconographic next door neighbor, Mr. Wilson (Walter Matthau).

Matthau is at least up to the responsibilities of iconhood. He makes grumpy seem almost like sexy, with the dour, mumbling, curmudgeonly contempt for all aspects of the universe he cannot control. He's a mythic-scaled sour old man, an Achilles who survived the Trojan war and turned rancid with dotage. I don't like the way, however, that Hughes has given him a mean, petty streak. He tells lies to get Dennis in trouble, and he sneaks and skulks around a lot at night, trying to get some leverage on his pint-sized opponent.

Unfortunately, he's the central exhibit in an ugly subtext entirely inserted by Hughes and having nothing to do with Hank Ketcham's original Dennis: a strain of sheer, pure hostility toward the elderly. In a quest for the cheapest of laughs, Hughes turns Dennis' mischievousness into coarse physical hostility of the cruelest nature: replacing mouthwash with hemorrhoid medicine, for example, so that poor old Wilson chokes like a poison victim and then does the splits. The camera enjoys this atrocity from above, urging us to enjoy the spectacle of the brittle-boned oldster splayed across the bathroom floor like a violated clam shell.

The anger toward the elderly continues in unsettling ways. When poor Mr. Wilson's gardening group comes over, the members are all infirm and nearly blind, and much comic hay is made of their inability to read or speak clearly with their loose dentures. What, these guys think they're never going to get old?

After an hour and a half of such dreary nonsense, Hughes finally gives up and the movie switches gears into a small-scale version of "Home Alone": Unlike "Jurassic Park" which is about clones, this one is a clone! It's old Hughes territory: small child assaulted by criminally pathological outsider as played for the broadest of comedy with plenty o' violence. In this case, the drifter is Christopher Lloyd, a greasy Richard Speck-type with teeth the color of aged pewter, who ambles into Dennis' generic, timeless small town to commit petty larcenies while camping out by the railroad tracks. He ultimately takes Dennis captive.

Bad career move: Dennis, with his gift for improvised mayhem and following a close reading of O. Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief" (the true source of the Hughes oeuvre), soon has him smashed, bashed, crushed, blasted, toasted and crippled. I love it when the main ingredient in a childhood movie is torture and mutilation. It's so amusant.

It's significant of the movie's story problems that poor Mr. Wilson never figures in this plot except to fret and whine at home. Memo to Hughes: Why not give the old guy a moment of glory by letting him save Dennis? What, it's not realistic? And Dennis engineering a ploy by which Lloyd is hoisted by a passing train and smashed against the bottom of a viaduct is?

Dennis the Menace: change your agent.

John Hughes: Go home alone.

Mason Gamble: stop chirping. It's really annoying.

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