The title and opening scenes of Modern Problems suggest an absurd yet deft satire of modern life. Air traffic controller Max (Chevy Chase) seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he struggles to make it through a day in a heightened universe where dead pilots are commonplace, coworkers light their cigarettes off the flaming remains of a damaged radar screen, street thugs key employee cars in the airport parking lot, and traffic that makes Chicago look like Cedar Rapids plagues New York City. At the end of the day, Max discovers via an answering machine message that longtime girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) has left him, prompting him to wallow in self-pity. This is a great setup for a sly (if slightly cartoonish) comedy about, well…modern problems. Unfortunately, Max develops telekinesis, which ruins everything.

See, Max’s emotional state further deteriorates when he runs into an old friend, Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray), a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who’s far more successful than Max. Max takes his ex-wife (Mary Kay Place) to a party Brian’s publishing company is throwing at a gay bar and gets frustrated when she’s attracted to Brian. He gets more frustrated when Darcy shows up with a new boyfriend. On his way home, Max tailgates a leaking tanker truck filled with radioactive waste, and when he wakes up in the morning, he has telekinetic powers.

This development could have been a golden opportunity for Modern Problems, but it causes the movie to lose steam in a hurry. The inspired satire of the first act disappears when the big telekinesis set pieces take over. Max tries to win Darcy back by giving her new boyfriend a gushing nosebleed and ruining a ballet the new boyfriend has produced. Believe it or not, this actually works, so Max uses his powers to give Darcy the best sexual experience of her life. All of these sequences pretty much fall flat, in part as a result of Chase’s relentless mugging during the mostly silent telekinesis.

The second half of the film focuses on Max and Darcy spending the weekend at Brian’s beach house, along with Max’s ex-wife and Brian’s star author, Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman). Winslow is a deluded womanizer so convinced of his own righteousness that he’s turned himself into a sleazy self-help guru eerily reminiscent of Dr. Phil. Coleman manages to find the humanity in this shallow, underwritten character, making him pretty much the only reason to watch the second half.

By the time Max has turned into a full-blown monster, it’s hard to still care about him or his romantic life. It seems like he has bigger problems than that, but director/co-writer Ken Shapiro insistently keeps everything too focused on Max and Darcy. I would ordinarily consider this a strength — usually the problem I have with films is that they lose focus on the characters in favor of goofy plot twists — but the writers never show why Max and Darcy got together in the first place or why Max feels they need to stay together. The only thing said about their relationship is that Darcy left Max because he gets too jealous. This is underscored by the way Max handles Darcy’s other love interests, but he never overcomes the problem, yet (predictable-movie spoiler alert) he still gets the girl. The film shovels a happy ending down our throats that feels frustratingly unearned.

Overall, Modern Problems qualifies as a serious missed opportunity. Early on, Shapiro tries to bring the same dark-edged, anarchic absurdity he brought to his only other directorial credit, 1974’s ambitious but uneven The Groove Tube. However, the film gets so distracted by its high-concept goofiness, it never takes the time to make us care about any of the characters, including Max. Even Chevy Chase fans will want to skip this one.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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