That critics have any power whatsoever is a myth we’ve all agreed upon. Yet, very occasionally, a review will become far more notorious than the movie that spawned it. None have accomplished this feat harder than Roger Ebert, normally a sweet avuncular presence devoted to championing culture both high and low, when he utterly savaged Rob Reiner’s family comedy North. “I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie,” he wrote. If anything, he was being generous.
Tagline: A family comedy that appeals to the child in everyone.
More Accurate Tagline: A family comedy that makes you wonder why you have a family at all.
Guilty Party: The obvious target would be screenwriter Alan Zweibel, who also wrote the novel on which it’s based. Holy shit, there’s a novel? Had this been an Afterschool Special, I might have less of a problem with it. Anyway, I’m blaming Rob Reiner. We know the man can make movies. He made This Is Spinal Tap. He made When Harry Met Sally… He made fucking The Princess Bride. So he, in theory, knows better. Look, I’m not saying abduction is ever the right thing to do, but I was praying for Vizzini to show up and kidnap North about five minutes into this thing.
Synopsis: Whimsy is not my thing. Usually because it feels like it’s covered with flop sweat and trying to entice me into a windowless van to see baby rabbits. I don’t want to end up in a bunker for fifteen years. I am not strong as hell. So when North opens with the tinkling of whimsy in its score, promising me a decade and a half in the dark, my consciousness rebels.
It doesn’t help that it instantly introduces us to one of the most unlikeable heroes in film history. North (Elijah Wood) is the perfect child on paper: a snotty little asshole who pulls perfect grades while being a star athlete. He lives in a palatial suburban home with two harried parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus). What’s this little prick’s problem? He’s not appreciated enough. That’s it.
So he heads over to the mall, where he has a conversation with Bruce Willis in a bunny costume (yes, seriously), who then talks North into declaring free agency from his parents. A judge (Alan Arkin) allows this (although mostly because the parents have fallen into comas), giving North from the Fourth of July to Labor Day to test the waters. If he’s not in the arms of his new parents by noon on Labor Day, he gets sent to an orphanage. I know it’s not in the movie, but I was hoping it would be like the jail in Sleepers. Seriously, North. Fuck you.
That’s when the movie decides it’s time to get racist.
Sure, we start out with a relatively harmless caricature of Texas that might be funny to newborns or someone who recently suffered head trauma and is trying to learn to speak again. Then we get wildly offensive with a creepy look at Hawaii, Abe Vigoda and Kathy Bates (who should fucking know better) in redface for “Eskimos,” a quick Amish sight gag, Imperial China where North is the Emperor, and an African village that would have to improve significantly to qualify merely as horrifyingly racist. At most of these, he runs into some form of Bruce Willis, who smirks his way through a scene and looks like he just wants to get back to the hotel bar for some Seagram’s Wine Cooler. He eventually ends up with the perfect family: white and suburban (with John Ritter, Faith Ford, and a larval Scarlett Johansson in her first screen appearance). North can’t stay here, so he has to go home.
Meanwhile, back home the kids have taken North’s emancipation as an excuse to be dicks to their parents. Led by the insufferably precocious Winchell and assisted by simpering toady Jon Lovitz (Jon Lovitz), this movement isn’t going to let North come home so easily. So they launch an assassination plot. You know, for kids.
While North dodges a hitman who looks like he’s on break from an episode of The Sopranos, his parents come out of the coma. Eventually, they’re about to have their tearful reunion right at the buzzer, when the hitman gets the drop on them. There’s a gunshot… and North wakes up.
Yep. It was all a dream. In other words, the laziest, most trite dodge in the history of writing. The movie can’t even be troubled to think of a new way to tell you to fuck yourself, so it uses the oldest one of all. North goes home, finds his parents were worried about him, and he’s happy again.
Life-Changing Subtext: Foreign cultures are weird and stupid, so it’s best to stick with white people.
Defining Quote: North’s Father: “I saw some blood in my stool this morning.” After his movie, me too, pal.
Standout Performance: Alan Arkin as Judge Buckle. He’s like the ghost of funny Alan Arkin, but you sort of have to grasp at straws with this one.
What’s Wrong: The dream thing is a convenient dodge. Hey, the movie’s not racist, it’s taking place in the mind of a little boy. He doesn’t know any better! Right, okay… let’s analyze.
At the very least, North is shockingly narcissistic. We’re talking Buffalo Bill territory, so if poor little ScarJo ends up as a dress in his basement, I won’t be shocked. The first reel of the movie is all about how amazing North is, and how his decision instantly becomes front page news and touches off a cultural movement.
Does he warrant any of this? Really? Considering that the kid still thinks Imperial China is a thing, and that he would instantly be crowned Emperor, says his grasp of geopolitics might a little shaky. Kind of makes you wonder about how good the school is. He’s also convinced that at least Zaire is entirely jungle villages with topless women and Tarzan sounds. So all this racism we’re sweeping under the rug? It’s all North. He thinks he’s incredible, and he’s just a couple years away from being a moderator on Stormfront.
Flash of Competence: The production design isn’t bad.
Best Scenes: In any movie like this, you don’t want to lean to hard on the “everybody’s a pedophile” jokes. But seriously… everybody is a pedophile. Don’t blame me, it’s this goddamn movie.
Okay, so in the beginning when his parents are loudly complaining at the dinner table and ignoring North, he has a heart attack. Although, he never goes to the hospital, so he might have been faking it for attention. Wouldn’t put it past this horrible little gremlin. What’s his dad’s response? “Loosen his pants!” Where does his dad think the heart is located anyway?
Then, off in Hawaii, the governor’s plan is to start a tourist campaign that shows an octopus pulling North’s pants down. North instantly begins screeching about his “crack.” That’s the precise word he uses, and he uses it a lot. So he thinks that the one thing that’s keeping people from going to Hawaii is that they haven’t seen his bare ass. Dennis Reynolds could get ego lessons from this kid.
Then Bruce Willis in his various guises is being inappropriate, first waving around a carrot, then telling smutty jokes, then straight up saying that in Miami, “your balls stick to your leg like krazy glue.”
Transcendent Moment: The first moment you realize that you’re not just watching a bad movie, you’re watching an epically terrible misfire, an asylum taken by the lunatics and then burned down, is the musical number. Yeah, there’s a musical number, and to the movie’s credit, if you hire Reba McEntire and don’t have her sing, you’re not getting your money’s worth. It’s not the song that’s the problem. It’s the one moment, the lyric that promises North a bride, and there she is. Ten years old, giving him flirty eyes and doing the splits. The goddamn splits.
North has no idea what it is. Is it a black comedy about the false innocence of children? A broad, racist throwback to an earlier age of Hollywood? A family movie with dirty jokes for the grownups? A comedy that just isn’t any fun? Oh, it’s all of these things and none, and now I return to the oblivion it sent me.