In Chevy Chase's 'Man of the House,' the lights are on but nobody's home

March 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There's nothing wrong with "Man of the House" that a little intelligence wouldn't have solved. But no such luck.

There's a kernel of a provocative idea here. Chevy Chase plays a government attorney named Jack who falls in love with the divorced Farrah Fawcett, much to the resentment of her young son Ben (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), who has formed a deep and lasting bond with his single parent. Chase moves in with the idea of wooing the boy to his affections, but the boy, clever little monster that he is, realizes that he has momentary leverage in the situation.

He uses this to put Chase through an ever-escalating assortment of ordeals, which, though he secretly loathes them, Chase must endure good-heartedly even as they increase in absurdity and cruelty. For one thing, he gets Chase to join some cornball Native-American-wannabe cult, so that poor Chev must cavort about dressed like an extra in C. B. DeMille's "Squaw Man."

For a gifted filmmaker who could bring out nuances of human behavior, a sense of reality, and possibly some humor based on baser human instincts, such as cruelty and sexual desire, the film could have been a contender -- not for an Oscar (we are talking Chevy Chase, after all), but at least for three lousy stars.

No such luck. What really drives the plot isn't the situation of the family but a dreary subplot in which some comically imagined (though quite violent) gangsters try to assassinate Chase, who for the longest time barely notices. Now why do these guys have Brooklyn accents if the film is set in Seattle (and filmed in Vancouver)? Why do they talk with exaggerated locutions that haven't been fresh since about 1935, when Damon Runyon invented them?

The movie ends in an explosion of humorous violence, when boy and man are about to be executed by the mobsters and merrily exchange quips with them before the fatal shots are fired. It's Hollywood's most grotesque conceit that nothing stimulates the wit like a muzzle of a gun.

The performances, if anything, lower the quality of the film. Chase seems caught in despair between Old Self (clumsy goofball who destroys things) and New Self (sensitive actor), and so he comes across as No Self. He's so muted he's hardly there. Jonathan Taylor Thomas is tiresomely obnoxious. Fawcett has very little to do except appear wise and concerned. George Wendt, as one of the Indian wannabes, is occasionally funny, as is the movie. Very occasionally.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Man of the House"

Starring Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett

Directed by James Orr

Released by Disney

Rated PG

**

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