Revenge Of A Supernerd

Joel Schumacher's slick, deeply confused exploitation movie Failing Down is a thriller designed to fan the flames of urban paranoia. Michael Douglas plays a divorced, unemployed defense-industry worker who gets stuck in a hellish Los Angeles traffic jam, abandons his car, pops his cork and proceeds to go on a violent rampage across the city. His final destination: the home of his terrified ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and child. The only man who can stop him: a mild-mannered desk cop named Prendergast (Robert Duvall) who is, as we are told too many times in Ebbe Roe Smith's none-too-subtle screenplay, serving his last day before retirement.

Sounds like a standard psycho-on-the-loose setup, right? Wrong. "Falling Down" wants to be taken as a Major Statement about middle-class frustration in a deteriorating multicultural society. Though the Douglas character (called D-Fens after his license plate) is clearly bonkers, we're meant to identify with his rage against a world that has crushed his white, middleclass dreams. Like Howard ("I'm mad as hell") Beale in "Network" crossed with Charles Bronson in "Death Wish," "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle and the real-life Bernie Goetz, he's supposed to be a cracked Everyman gone gun crazy for our sins.

A real artist could make something incisive or darkly hilarious out of this moral tightrope act. Schumacher, veering recklessly between social satire, kick-ass fantasy and damsel-in-distress melodrama, plays the game for opportunistic cheap thrills. One moment D-Fens, with his glasses and geek wardrobe, is a dangerous sicko, the next he's Supernerd the avenger. His rampage begins when he assaults a Korean grocery owner and trashes his store after the guy refuses to give him change for a phone call. Why are we supposed to identify with this jerk? Because he's played by a star? It would help if we saw what D-Fens was like before he went over the edge, but "Falling Down" doesn't have time for little things like character development.

The movie's solution to this problem is to make D-Fens's victims even more vile than he is. So Douglas gets to whomp menacing, machine-gun-toting Latino gangbangers, drive a rich, snooty golfer to a heart attack (a comic touch, I presume) and terrorize the officious employees of a fast-food joint with his arsenal of weapons. We're not allowed to feel anything for them. In the most ludicrous sequence, he blows away a surplus-store manager (Frederic Forrest), but we're meant to cheer because this miserable dude is a homophobe, a racist and a Nazi. Schumacher's touch is not light.

"Falling Down" rants with forked tongue. While solemnly condemning racism and violence, it doesn't miss an opportunity to play on the audience's most paranoid instincts. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as simply a dumb (though expertly photographed) junk movie. But its pretensions render it pernicious. Pandering to the Zeitgeist, it becomes part of the problem it pretends to address.