Elizabeth "Lizzie" Cronin (Cates) has had a horrible day, her entire life falling apart within a single lunch hour. First, while trying to reconcile with her husband over his affair, he dumps her. Her purse and then car are stolen as she tries to figure out what to do about her life, and finally she loses her job. Lizzie's controlling mother Polly (Marsha Mason) arrives on the scene and Shanghais Lizzie into staying with her. Upon returning to her childhood home and exploring her old room, Lizzie discovers an old, taped up jack-in-the-box. When she opens it, Lizzie ends up releasing her childhood imaginary friend Drop Dead Fred (Mayall), whom her mother had trapped inside the toy many years ago.
Having been imprisoned in the toy for twenty-three years, Fred is surprised to find Lizzie grown up, depressed and piled under her unhappy life. As her imaginary friend, he tries to help her put things back together and cheer her up like he did when she was little. Fred's sense of humour and disregard for consequences cause some more problems for Elizabeth, but he ultimately helps her rediscover her inner child and the strength to live her own life free from her domineering, emotionally abusive mother.
Originally this film was panned by critics and not much of a box office success; however, over the years it has been able to achieve a cult status, especially as an American introduction to Rik Mayall.
This movie contains examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Lizzie's mother definitely goes into this area.
- Affectionate Nickname: Freds for Lizzie is "Snotface".
- Ambiguously Bi: For the majority of the film, Lizzie is in love with Charles, her husband (although the latter is a total Jerkass). She also shares a kiss with Fred before saying goodbye to him towards the end of the film. However, Drop Dead Fred, her Imaginary Friend who clearly represents aspect of herself, likes looking up womens skirts. The case for this seems to be that Lizzie is sexually repressed and that her mother and husband keep her controlled in a childlike state.
- An Aesop: Elizabeth's greatest fear is being alone. After defending herself against her mother and and freeing her younger self in her dream, Fred tells her now that she has herself (her younger self), she doesn't need him any more. The hidden message is that you are never really alone as long as you have yourself.
- And I Must Scream: Fred was sealed in the Jack-in-the-Box throughout Elizabeth's childhood before being released.
- And This Is for...: Janie accidentally outs her affair with Murray when trying to attack Fred:''That's for the boat! And that's for ruining the one schtoop I get a month when Murray's wife is out of town!"
- Animated Credits Opening: Done in the style of children's drawings.
- Applied Phlebotinum: The green pills.
- Artistic License Economics: Insurance doesn't work that way. Unless Janie had the good sense to file her claim as an accident rather than her overstressed, mentally ill friend's nutjob imaginary companion.
- The Baby Trap: Polly tried to keep her husband by becoming pregnant with Lizzie. When this still didn't work and he left, she ended up putting the blame on her daughter.
- Bittersweet Ending: Lizzie finally finds happiness in her life, but she can no longer see Fred. However, Fred hasn't gone far as he is now the imaginary friend of Mickey's (Lizzie's childhood friend) daughter and Lizzie realizes this when she notices the little pinkie sign she used to do with Fred.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Janie. She's apparently a professional woman with a high-paying job, but she is also a complete flake who is very much into New Age type thinking and is uncommonly accepting of the very strange. When Lizzie tells her about Fred she simply accepts it, and when Fred sinks her houseboat she gets mad at Fred (not Lizzie) and tries to beat him up.
- Cassandra Truth: Played with from so many different angles among the characters, per Lizzie's claim regarding Fred's "existence", you almost don't know where to start!
- Character Title: Drop Dead Fred is Lizzie's imaginary friend, and arguably the deuteragonist of the film.
- Cringe Comedy: With lots of physical comedy and toilet humour.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Polly. Throughout the movie she treats Lizzie very coldly. However, she finally opens up to her daughter and asks her not to leave her alone.
- Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: Janie's reaction after the And This Is for... above.
- Dirty Old Man: Murray.Murray: I never had imaginary friends. Just wet dreams.Janie: You kiss your mother with that mouth, Murr?
- Disappeared Dad: Lizzie was only conceived because Polly believed that having a child might save her failing marriage to her husband Nigel. However, they couldn't agree on how to raise her; when Polly finally gets sick of Lizzie's antics with Fred and decides to imprison him in a jack-in-the-box, Nigel insists she's making a mistake, but she dismisses his opinion as irrelevant. This proves to be the last straw for their marriage, and Polly's treatment of Lizzie becomes even more strict and manipulative without Nigel to rein her in.
- Fanservice Extra: A male example. A really hot waiter wearing only a toga accidentally gets stripped by Fred at one point.
- From Bad to Worse: Lizzie earns Woobie status less than 10 minutes into the film, in which her husband doesn't want to reconcile, her purse is stolen from her car, and then a passerby uses the broken window to gain entry and steal her car. Then...(Court reporter Lizzie barges into courtroom over an hour late)Lizzie: I'm sorry, Your Honor, I lost my money, my car, my husband...Judge: All in one lunch hour?...Will the court reporter approach the bench, please?Lizzie: I'm sorry.Judge: So am I; you're fired.
- From the Mouths of Babes: Even as a child, Lizzie apparently learned some... interesting words.Young Lizzie: Did they live happily ever after?Polly: Of Course Elizabeth.Young Lizzie: How do you know?Polly: Because, she was a good little girl, if she would have been naughty, the Prince would have run away.Young Lizzie: What a pile of shit.
- Gilligan Cut: Lizzie's mom tells her that she's coming home with her, Lizzie attempts to assert that she's staying in her own apartment, only for the scene to cut to her being driven home by her mother.
- Great Gazoo: Fred.
- Heroes Want Redheads: Downplayed as Lizzie spends most of the film trying to get Charles back with her. However, it appears that her and Fred did have some hidden feelings for each other as they kissed towards the end of the film.
- Imaginary Friend: Fred of course. Although some of his behavior makes him look more like an Imaginary Enemy in some sequences.
- In-Series Nickname: Fred has a few nicknames for Polly. His most common is The Megabitch/Megabeast. And for Lizzie, more affectionately, Snotface.
- Let's see, he breaks stuff, smears dog crap on the carpet, mocks Lizzie about her husband leaving her, causes havoc at a resturaunt, makes Lizzie look completely batshit (that is, if you don't already think that about her), oh, and destroys Janie's home and everything she owns for no apparent reason other than his amusement. Yeah, Fred is totally the friend we all need.
- Charles as well, what with the whole extramarital affair, and then acting like Lizzie needs to "just let him live his life." Oh, and he married her because he can control her.
- The judge who fires Lizzie because she was late even though it was only because she had her car stolen and couldn't possibly make it to work in time.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Although Drop Dead Fred is a crude, annoying, unhelpful and mischievous troublemaker who causes a great deal of problems and stress for Lizzie, he does genuinely care for her and her happiness. At the end of the film, he sees that Lizzie is happy with her life and that she doesnt need him anymore. The both of them kiss before saying goodbye.
- Jump Scare: Fred freaks Lizzie out by re-appearing right in front of her yelling "BOO!"Fred: Ha ha ha, shit yourself?
- Large Ham: Rik Mayall as Fred.
- Manchild: Fred.
- Maybe Ever After: The last scene implies Lizzie will end up together with Mickey, her childhood playmate and a man much kinder than Charles.
- My Beloved Smother: Polly, Polly, Polly. She micromanages absolutely every aspect of her daughter's life, effectively keeping her in a childlike state. It's telling that when Elizabeth finally has the courage to leave Charles once and for all, his first instinct is to call Polly in the hope that she can manipulate Elizabeth into returning to him.
- Never Grew Up: Implied that a person might not actually grow out of needing their imaginary friend. They can take the green pills that will inevitably kill their friend or in Lizzie's case figure out and defeat what it is that is making them unhappy.
- Never My Fault: Polly blames Lizzie for Nigel leaving her, when really, it was because he couldn't stand the emotional abuse she heaped on poor Lizzie.Polly: I guess I made a mistake anyone could make, I had a child to save a marriage.
Lizzie: How could you say that?
Polly: Well, you only made things worse! He left because of you!
Lizzie: What a pile of shit.
- Not Afraid of You Anymore: During the climax, Lizzie finally yells this at a representation of her mother.
- No Sympathy: The judge who was Lizzie's boss fires her even after hearing that she lost her money, car, and husband all in one hour.
- Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Fred.
- Official Kiss: Although it was short, Lizzie and Fred share one before they both say goodbye.
- Percussive Maintenance: Fred thinks Lizzie wants him to do this to Janie's houseboat. He winds up sinking it.
- Poltergeist: Fred can interact with people and things, even give the illusion that he can appear as another person (the violinist in the mall).
- Redhead In Green: Fred has an outfit for every occasion, but definitely doesn't believe in branching out, chromatically.
- Rich Bitch: Polly.
- Schmuck Bait:Fred: You want me to go away? Fine, just say the magic words and I'll piss off!Lizzie: Piss off!Fred: Gotcha! Those aren't the magic words!Polly: What did you say to me?Fred: She told you to piss off, what are ya, deaf?!
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Lizzie at the wine tasting.
- Shrinking Violet: Adult Lizzie starts the film out as one of these.
- Speak of the Devil:Fred: That's sooooo namby-pamby!Namby-Pamby: You called? (appears)Fred and his friends: NAMBY-PAMBY! WHOOOOAAA!
- Suspiciously Specific Denial:Elizabeth: Mother, do you remember when I was little, I had a friend, he was make-believe?Polly: No.Elizabeth: Don't you remember, I was the only one could see him?Polly: No, I don't remember Drop Dead Fred at all.
- Theme Naming: One of the other imaginary friends is credited as "Go To Hell Herman".
- Title Drop: Whenever Fred's full moniker is used.
- Toilet Humour: In one scene, Fred smears dog poop on Polly's carpet.
- Too Dumb to Live: Janie. Or at least too dumb for her house to live. If someone comes to you, talking about an "imaginary friend" that they blame for the destruction of your home, the correct reaction is not an irritated sigh. The correct reaction is to have them committed, and fast, because they are dangerous.
- Considering the immediate follow-up to said sigh was to believe in said imaginary friend and then very publicly try to physically assault him - in the middle of a meeting at her own workplace - her initial reaction could have been the beginning of a slow mental breakdown.
- Traumatic Haircut: Fred does this to Lizzie's new 'do while she's sleeping. And also once when she was younger.
- Trickster Mentor: Fred's Hidden Depths.
- Unwanted Assistance: Lizzie in understandably displeased by Fred's attempts to make her lighten up. It isn't until the climax that she realizes why she needed him all along.
- Visible to Believers: Fred is an Imaginary Friend who was sealed in a Jack-In-The-Box for many years, until his creator accidentally releases him. Presumably if he hadn't been sealed up he'd have been out in the world even if he had no longer been believed in.