THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Clifford’ Practically Defines Cult Comedy

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With THAT’S NOT ROTTEN, Sean picks a movie deemed rotten on Rotten Tomatoes and illustrates why it’s better than thought.

Have you ever had someone you really respected like a certain piece of pop culture that leaves you simply asking, “Really?” But because of their word you give it a chance and are pleasantly surprised to realize that you were too quick to judge something based on what you expected it to be and not what it actually is. While sifting through the 24 hours of comedy on the Scharpling & Wurster box set, the repetition of a certain line from Clifford, the Martin Short movie where Martin Short plays a 10-year-old boy, got me wondering if I might’ve written that movie off too soon. Having now taken the 90 minutes to watch Clifford in its entirety, I was genuinely surprised that it is a rather solid comedy.

A number of factors conspired to relegate Clifford’s legacy to mainly an oft-repeated joke on an underground comedy radio show, chief among them the financial problems that its studio, Orion. When Orion fell on hard times, it withheld release to a number of its films, including Clifford and Robocop 3. Comedy is very much a product of its time which is why it’s so hard to make comedy that endures. Clifford was intended for a 1991 release but was delayed nearly three years before finally opening in April of 1994. Without a doubt, Clifford would’ve fared better in 1991, when The Naked Gun 2 ½ was the 10th highest grossing film of the year, than in 1994, where the face of cinematic comedy was changing with the massive success of Jim Carey.

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On its surface, Clifford looks to be nothing more than Martin Short playing a 10-year-old, being super-annoying, and that’s it. Except the film is aware of this and makes the character of Clifford as irredeemably unlikeable. As a matter of fact, Clifford is the villain of his own story. He’s a scheming, manipulative being that aims to wear people down in order to get what he wants. Even with the bookends of an elderly Clifford in 2050, working as a priest at an orphanage, the film shows that Clifford is unable to actually redeem himself, even with the best intentions he is still an irritant.

As much as Martin Short is the bizarre conceit of the film, a 40-year-old actor portraying a 10-year-old boy, the glue that holds Clifford together is the performance of Charles Grodin as Clifford’s uncle Martin. Though Martin is successful professionally, his relationship to Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) is on shaky ground when he purchases a home for the couple that isn’t equipped for children, which Sarah desperately desires. Unbeknownst to Martin, Clifford nearly crashed an airliner to land in Los Angeles in order to go to Dinosaur World, a theme park that Clifford obsesses over. As a favor to his brother that he’s no longer talks to and to prove to Sarah that he likes children, Martin agrees to take in Clifford, much to the elation of Clifford’s exhausted parents. But Martin is lying when he tells Sarah that he and Clifford are close. The last time Martin actually saw his nephew was at the child’s baptism. Being unaware of Clifford’s manic personality and basing his motivations upon a lie, Martin’s personal and professional life is about to be thrown into complete upheaval.

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Clifford’s attempts at manipulating Martin start when they first meet. Laying in a waiting room pretending to sleep, Clifford’s first words when awoken by Martin are, “Don’t reject me, Uncle Martin!” When professional obligations force Martin to cancel their planned trip to Dinosaur World, Clifford begins to torment Martin, pushing him to the brink of insanity. Clifford not only sabotages Martin at every available opportunity at work, whether it’s calling in bomb threats or complimenting Martin’s boss, played by Dabney Coleman, on his magnificent toupée. Worst of all, Clifford becomes infatuated with Sarah and goes out of his way to undermine Martin in front of Sarah and her family. Sarah sees Clifford and this sweet little child and Martin as a selfish crank. Even though Martin is certainly a selfish crank, he’s actually in the right here as Clifford is basically a prepubescent terrorist. And Grodin sells Martin’s slow descent into madness so perfectly, this seething rage hiding under his smiling façade. Then when Martin blows up, Grodin is able to coax strong laughs from the way he proclaims about Clifford, “he’ll be fine if you give him a ton of sugar and a book about Hitler.”

In many regards, Clifford feels reminiscent of What About Bob?, only had Clifford been released as planned it would never have been in the shadow of the Bill Murray vehicle. The studio problems that left Clifford buried also did irreparable damage to the creative crew of the film. Writers Jay Dee Rock and Bobby Von Hayes would never write another movie. It would be the last feature film that director Paul Flahtery would helm, though he did direct some episodes of Primetime Glick with Martin Short. Hell, even Charles Grodin was absent from screens for nearly 20 years following Clifford. All of which is a shame because Clifford is a perfect cult movie. It’s built on a weird foundation that will naturally repel a certain segment of the population. There’s a ton of laughs hidden in this little cinematic oddity. So when someone is asking you about a woefully underrated cult comedy, you can them, “I want to say Mason. Clifford! It’s Clifford!”

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