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Film / Problem Child

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He's so bad, even the nuns refused to keep him.

"Just this morning, I came upon a seven-year-old. He's smart as a tack, a little rambunctious, but, weren't we all at that age?"
—Igor Peabody introducing the Healys to Junior for the first time.

Problem Child is a 1990 comedy film directed by Dennis Dugan and starring John Ritter. It surrounds the destructive antics of a seven-year-old boy known only as Junior, who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home because he has the social skills of a Tasmanian Devil. He ultimately lands in the hapless custody of Ben Healy’s family, and Hilarity Ensues.

This movie received overwhelmingly negative reviews during its theatrical release, and is Dennis Dugan's second worst reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes, second only to Jack and Jill, but has since received cult status on home video. It was followed by two sequels, Problem Child 2 in 1991, and Problem Child 3: Junior in Love in 1995.

There was also an animated television series based on the movies. Its page is here.


Tropes associated with these movies:

    open/close all folders 

  • Anti-Role Model: Junior is practically this.
  • Asshole Victim: About 95% of Junior's targets. The other 5% is mostly poor Ben getting caught in the crossfire.
  • Bad to the Bone: Junior’s leitmotif is none other than George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone".
  • Berserk Button: Don't speak ill of or insult Ben within earshot of Junior. It WILL bite you on the ass. Hard.
  • Big Bad: Bow-Tie Killer.
    • In the second film, we got LaWanda (at least for Junior), and Trixie (in general).
  • Child Hater: Igor Peabody, Big Ben Healy, and LaWanda Dumore really top the cake. Many of the former's jobs all revolve around children in some way.
  • Hypocrite: Big Ben Healy has referred to Junior as "evil" and "the devil" even though he's a genuine antagonistic jerkass himself.
  • It's All About Me: Flo Healy and LaWanda Dumore only care about making themselves look good.
  • Jerkass: Anyone who makes the ill-advised mistake of antagonizing Junior... but Big Ben Healy is the textbook case of this trope!
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Junior, although he doesn't show it much. Trixie is also one. Big Ben Healy isn't one.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Junior, but only to people who deserve it. Junior himself is picked on by other kids just because he's adopted.
  • Meaningful Name: Ben Healy literally heals Junior.
  • Monster Clown: A Running Gag is that Junior hates clowns. He isn't particularly scared of them, though; they just seem to piss him off.
  • Morality Pet: Odd as it sounds, Ben Healy is THIS to Junior! (See Meaningful Name)
  • New Job as the Plot Demands: Gilbert Gottfried's character, Mr. Peabody, who was an adoption agent in the first film, a principal in the second (and cartoon) and a dentist in the third.
  • Nice Guy: Ben Healy is the nicest person in the series, hands down, because he genuinely loves Junior even when he's bad. The problem is that a lot of people find it easy to take advantage of that kindness.
  • No Indoor Voice: What did you expect from Gilbert Gottfried?
  • Only Sane Man: Ben Healy. Except when Junior wrecks his car, and Bow-Tie Killer shows up at their house, and takes his wife and Junior. He has totally lost it then up until he finds an item that causes him to come back to his senses.
  • Re-Cut: Both 1 and 2 aired on television, edited for content, but with newly-added scenes to make up for what was cut. You can watch them here and here.
  • Shout-Out: Below is a list of examples from all three movies:
    • The poster of the 1st movie resembles that of Parenthood.
    • During the 3rd film, when Murph (Eric Edwards) introduces Junior to his sister Bertha (played by Edwards in drag), Junior says "Who let her out of Jurassic Park?" Both Jurassic Park and Problem Child franchises were Universal Pictures releases.
    • Also during the 3rd film, Dr. Peabody wears a Watchmen button on his suit.
  • Villain Protagonist: Junior. He deliberately makes life difficult for everyone by pulling dangerous pranks because he finds them funny, often going for Disproportionate Retribution for the slightest insults.
  • Urine Trouble: Quite a few of Junior's particularly disgusting pranks involve it.
  • World of Jerkass: Borders on this. Kids Are Cruel, adults are passive-aggressive at best and sourpuss Jerkasses at worst, and often times the only one who seems to have a heart is Ben.

    Problem Child 
  • Adoption Diss: Lucy Henderson says this about Junior, claiming that "He's not even a real kid. He's adopted."
  • All Just a Dream: The TV version adds a scene during Martin's ink blot test, in which he hallucinates, and dreams about being set to the electric chair, and escaping from it in the process, but not before sending the Warden to it.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: The nuns throw a celebration at the orphanage when Ben Healy decides to adopt Junior.
  • Batter Up!: Junior's dad gives him the tip of "holding onto the bat" after two strikes. After hitting the ball, he holds onto the bat while making his way to the bases and uses it to beat up anyone in his way.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Junior is shown to actually like Ben as a father, since Ben was the first person to adopt him to actually treat him better.
  • Big Bad: Martin
  • Butt-Monkey: Mother Superior. Eventually Ben and Flo Healy themselves. Practically anyone under Junior's sly revengeful stunts.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The dried-up prune Ben carries around as a good luck charm, which ends up saving his life when he takes a bullet for Junior.
  • Corrupt Politician: Big Ben has absolutely no loyalty to the office he is running for, and all his campaign promises are Blatant Lies. Fortunately, he's exposed as a phony at the end. (See Is This Thing On?).
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Junior.
  • Doorstop Baby: Junior was left at a random door, and this was repeated for each set of adoptive parents even when he outgrew the basket.
  • Especially Zoidberg:
    Big Ben Healy: Is there a lesson to be learned from all this? How about don't trust anyone?
    Little Ben Healy: Not even your own father?
    Big Ben Healy: Especially your own father!
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Bow-Tie Killer is the nickname of Martin Beck.
  • Evil Counterpart: The Bow Tie Killer to Ben Healy. Junior has a fondness for both of them, however while Ben is genuinely caring, compassionate and a doting father to Junior, The Bow Tie Killer is sociopathic, ruthless and only intends on using Junior as a means to an end.
  • Groin Attack: The climax of the baseball scene. "We've adopted Satan."
  • I Have a Family: Mayor Healy and Principal Peabody failed to keep their end of a bargain with mobsters. Healy played straight with the trope by stating he had a family. Peabody, on the other hand, said he didn't have one but could get one.
  • I Love the Smell of X in the Morning:
    Junior: [After breaking several milk bottles] I love the smell of spilled milk in the morning. It smells like victory. note 
  • Inkblot Test: The prison psychiatrist is giving a Rorschach test to the Bow Tie Killer (Martin Beck), only the "inkblots" are actually bloodstains left by his victims. While the warden is in the room he lies, saying he sees things like butterflies and bunnies hopping across fields. This enrages the warden, and the psychiatrist forces him to leave. Once the warden leaves, the psychiatrist continues the test, and the Bow Tie Killer says he sees blood, and kills the psychiatrist, puts on his clothes and drives out of prison. Why no one was watching what was going on from behind a two-way mirror is anyone's guess.
  • Is This Thing On?: Shortly before the climax, Ben asks his Jerkass father Big Ben for money to pay the ransom of his kidnapped wife and son while the former is preparing for his Mayor campaign speech. When he turns him down, Ben then asks "Hey dad! Why don't you tell all the voters what you really plan on doing with this town!" and surreptitiously turns on the camera:
    Big Ben: I don't give a rat's ass for the voters! All I care about is the power and the power that'll give me the money. That's why I'm a success and you're not! America for the Americans. If you believe that nonsense, you're even stupider than I thought! I'd sell my soul to the Japanese if they made me an offer. And as for you, don't come suckering around me if you want something! The only thing you'll get from me is this! (moons the camera)
  • Jerkass: Big Ben Healy. The same with Flo. The same with many children, especially towards Junior. Junior himself is a quite a bit of one in his own way, but is shown to be a Jerk with a Heart of Gold in the end.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Several examples:
  • Leitmotif: The Bow Tie Killer has a harmonica tune playing whenever he comes on-screen.
  • Mooning: Big Ben does this without realizing that the camera is on.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Ben is a Nice Guy while Flo is a self-centered harpy. The two share absolutely nothing in common.
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The Bow-Tie Killer claims he's this. Junior, however, actually plays it straight because he's a nice enough kid if he's treated like a human being.
  • Nun Too Holy: The nuns at the orphanage are downright mean, and they eventually use underhanded tactics to trick the Healeys into adopting Junior.
  • Oh, Crap!: The parrot's reaction to Junior upon his arrival at the Healy house.
  • Papa Wolf: Ben, when he meets up with Martin at the Circus.
    Little Ben Healy: "What did you say you Bow-Tie freak? NOBODY hurts my boy, now let him go!"
    • Same thing later on, when he uses himself as a shield to protect Junior from being shot by Martin.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: The music during the bear attack is recycled from the 1987 film Real Men, also scored by Miles Goodman and also starring John Ritter.
  • Spoiled Brat: There's nothing nice at all about Lucy Henderson who definitely deserved what was coming to her. Flo is an adult version in that she spoils herself and forces Ben to cave into her every wish.
  • Taking the Bullet: Ben does this for Junior at the climax when the Bow-Tie Killer shoots at him.
  • Take That!: This line from Big Ben Healy speaks for itself.
    Big Ben Healy: "Happy? You don't know what you're letting yourself in for. For all you know, his parents may have met in the looney bin. They might even be Democrats!"
  • You Can Keep Her: When the Bow Tie Killer kidnaps Flo and Junior, Ben is initially overjoyed that they are gone. However after seeing a drawing Junior made of him, he realizes Junior loves him and goes out to rescue him. Flo's not so lucky, though.

    Problem Child 2 
  • Artistic License – Engineering: The Crazy Dance Scene. Normally, there would have been a kill switch in easy reach of the operator who could have shut the ride down for going too fast instead of simply gaping as he's shown to do. For that matter, the speed controls would likely be accessible only to him instead of simply being out in the open as they are. But then we wouldn't have a scene of unadulterated gross-out comedy.
  • Bad Date: Junior has a bit of a problem adjusting to his dad trying to get him a new mom, and as a result sabotages two of his dates. This sets up the Cassandra Truth situation later in the movie where Junior is trying to get his dad not to marry LaWanda Dumore, a Rich Bitch Child Hater who has it in for him.
  • Big Bad LaWanda, mostly. Trixie Young is more of a Decoy Antagonist.
  • Brick Joke: Big Ben's "Millionaire Starter Kit." Little Ben and Junior see a cheesy TV ad for the obvious scam, and later Junior calls Voytek, who's living in squalor with one of the kits sitting on the counter behind him. The gag comes later when Big Ben moves in with them, lamenting that his scheme went bust and he only sold one starter kit.
  • Butt-Monkey: Primarily LaWanda. But all other Ben's dates take the brunt as well. Mr. Peabody is in several scenes. The School Teacher in one scene, not to mention Junior himself in one scene when he is outsmarted and hosed by Trixie. Ben Healy is in one scene. Big Ben Healy is in one to several scenes as well. Practically anyone under Junior's sly revengeful stunts.
  • The Can Kicked Him: Junior throws dynamite down a toilet to stop Trixie's prank, causing all the toilets to explode, including one his teacher is using. The teacher wears a diaper for the rest of the film.
  • Child Hater: LaWanda Dumore. Cemented when she threatens to send Junior to boarding school in Baghdad (where there was a goddamn war on at the time the film was released!), out-and-out stated during the climax.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: LaWanda threatens to send Junior to Baghdad. Baghdad would probably get the worst of it.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Ben and Junior favor blue with a touch of red in their outfits, all of Big Ben's clothes are mostly green, just about everything LaWanda wears or owns is bright red, and Annie mostly wears white. The color motif enhances the more cartoony vibe of this movie when compared to the original.
  • Covered in Gunge:
  • Cute and Psycho: Trixie. Utterly adorable, wears pretty little dresses, and is the only kid in town with a sadistic streak to match Junior's.
  • Disappeared Dad: Nothing is ever mentioned on Trixie's father.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Junior's barred from an amusement park ride due to being about a millimeter too short. After he sees Trixie cheat her way in by wearing platform shoes, he decides to tamper with the ride's controls, causing it to spin much too fast. Sure, it only made everyone on the Crazy Dance throw up, but something much worse could have easily happened.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Trixie is every bit the prankster that Junior is. The difference is that Junior usually saves his material for people who wrong him or his father while Trixie causes chaos for her own amusement.
  • Dog Food Diet: Debbie Claukinski's ex-husband Voytek is in his rathole apartment eating Chow Down when Junior calls. Chow Down, which comes in Beef, Chicken, and Horse and made Nippy take a dump three times his size.
  • The Dragon: Big Ben Healy pushes his son to marry LaWanda so he can be rich again.
  • Entitled Bastard: Big Ben Healy was a lousy father, and even worse step-grandfather to Junior, yet has no problems using his son's home as a safe house from the SEC.
  • Explosive Overclocking: The Crazy Dance Sequence. Junior turns the machine up as far as it will go (why the ride's controls are so accessible in the first place is anyone's guess), resulting in a 2-minute barfing spree before the ride's machinery disintegrates in a shower of sparks and smoke.
  • Flipping the Bird: Junior is driving his dad home, and an unseen driver cuts him off. The kid knows how to make use of "the highway salute".
    • Trixie gives Junior one in the middle of the school hallway before running off.
  • Food Fight: Ticked off when Junior flicks an olive into the cleavage of Mr. Peabody's date at the restaurant.
  • Grade Skipper: Mr. Peabody skips Junior ahead just so he can get him out of the school faster.
  • Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Ben nearly marries a child-hating millionairess.
    • This continues the running theme of the first movie of him falling for less-than-savory women.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Trixie started out antagonizing Junior but eventually she ends up befriending him.
  • Held Back in School: Murph has been at the school for at least as long as his long-suffering teacher. He's practically an adult and Junior insults him by saying he's been in the sixth grade since 1970.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: When Junior is asked by two snotty twin girls to refill a pitcher of lemonade, he does so with urine. The twins' father, Aron Burger takes a drink from it.
  • Jar Potty: Junior takes a whiz in order to refill a pitcher of lemonade for a pair of snobbish twin sisters that he wants to get back at. The twins' father, Aron Burger, is the one who ends up taking a sample of Junior's little concoction.
  • Jerkass: LaWanda. Including Big Ben Healy. Many of the kids are as well, especially towards Junior. Junior himself is a quite a bit of one in his own way.
  • Large Ham: LaWanda all the way. A man-eater and a scenery-chewer!
  • Loud Gulp: Ben Healy gives one of these when asking Nurse Annie on a date out of nervousness.
  • Magic Plastic Surgery: Junior tried to avert the wedding of his father and LaWanda by having her get plastic surgery to get the world's biggest nose on the day of the wedding. LaWanda woke up and discovered her new nose. Then, just a few hours later, she reappeared with her original nose and she said that she had some "last-minute double-overtime plastic surgery". So, she had two surgeries on the same body part in the same day with no scars.
  • Make a Wish: The purpose of the Love Rock.
  • Mustache Vandalism: Junior, a little jealous of the attention his adoptive father is giving Annie Young, decides to deface her picture in this way. He's found by Trixie, her daughter who is equal to him in being bad, who sternly warns him "I wouldn't do that if I were you." When Junior doesn't listen, Trixie floors him, says "Next time, you'll listen to me," and then draws a mustache on him with his own marker.
  • Mugging the Monster: In the opening scenes, as Junior and Ben drive into town, Junior uses a slingshot to pop a little girl's balloon, and lets out an Evil Laugh as they drive away. Unfortunately, that little girl was Trixie, and she'd make him pay dearly for that.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Subverted in the beginning when Junior calls out Little Ben's reminiscing of Cold River.
    Little Ben: "I used to have a lot of fond memories of this place."
    Junior: "Fond memories? What are you talking about? Everybody hated you. Your father, your wife, those horrible neighbors."
    Little Ben: "You're right. Let's blow this joint!"
  • Not Me This Time: During a puppet show at the school, things suddenly take an insulting turn. Ben is certain Junior's behind it and storms the stage while yelling, but he discovers it was actually Trixie. Then he sees that Junior was sitting in the front row the entire time and just enjoying the show.
  • Not So Different: Ben feels this way after learning Annie has a problem child of her own.
  • Off to Boarding School: "Whether you like it or not, I am going to marry your daddy. And when I do, you will be on the first plane to boarding school — in Baghdad!"
  • Oh, Crap!: Junior when he can't unfreeze Big Ben's dog. Nippy only gets unfrozen with the introduction of a new dog food called "Chow Down."
  • Senseless Phagia: Two examples:
    • Junior urinates into a pitcher of lemonade and passes it off to an unsuspecting bystander.
    • Junior sets loose a cockroach army into his family’s dinner.
  • Shipper with an Agenda:
    • Big Ben is pressuring his son to marry LaWanda so they can live off her money. He doesn't care when Ben realizes who he actually loves since the marriage could get them rich.
    • To prevent the marriage, Junior tries to set up Ben and Annie. In his defense, Annie is actually a nicer person, and Trixie's mother.
  • Sleep Cute: Junior and Trixie, at the foot of the Love Rock.
  • Squashed Flat: Subverted. The Love Rock rolls over LaWanda and seemingly flattens her, but she was merely pushed into the ground and the only injuries she suffers are to her pride.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: After the puke-o-rama resulting from the Crazy Dance going out of control, the machinery begins to smoke before the machinery breaks down in a spectacular shower of sparks and explosions. All in a day's work for Junior.
  • Suck E. Cheese's: Both families go there and a Food Fight breaks out.
  • Toilet Humor: The scene where a teacher rushes through the hall to the bathroom to take a dump, and it just so happens Junior just flushed Trixie's M-80 down the drain.
  • Too Dumb to Live: LaWanda tries pulling a You Shall Not Pass! on a rolling boulder and gets crushed. She only survives by luck.
  • Villainous Breakdown: "Oh... Oh... I'M PINOCCHIO!"
    • Her real breakdown comes later when Trixie crashes the wedding with a backhoe carrying the Love Rock, which is when the mask concealing her Child Hater nature finally slips.
      "I hate children! They've ruined everything! If I had enough power...I'd wipe them off the face of the earth!"
  • Vomit Chain Reaction: The Crazy Dance sequence combines this with Covered in Gunge.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: The Crazy Dance incident turns this Up to Eleven. (You should have a strong stomach for that scene.)
  • We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties: Invoked by Trixie when she hijacks the puppet show. (The bald eagle puppet: "I had to scratch my balls!")
  • Win-Win Ending: Everybody pretty much gets exactly what they wanted or needed in the end: Ben and Annie hook up, Junior and Trixie are best pals (and potential siblings!), LaWanda finds herself a more suitable new hubby in Big Ben, and Big Ben gets a sugar mama to punch his Meal Ticket.
  • You Must Be This Tall to Ride: During the fair scene, Junior tries to get on the Crazy Dance ride, but is told that he has to be as tall as the tentacle, which he just barely isn't ("But it's only a millimeter!").
    • To add insult to injury, Trixie, who's much shorter then him, manages to get in by putting on platform shoes..

    Problem Child 3: Junior in Love 
  • Ambiguously Gay: Corky. And if that wasn't enough, the actor who played him, Blake Mciver Ewing, is actually gay!
  • Braces of Orthodontic Overkill
  • Brats with Slingshots: Junior uses his on a horse that Corky is riding. The horse goes bananas when it gets hit, rearing and dumping its rider fully-clothed into the pool.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: The Scout leader (he even calls his own son a sissy boy).
  • Evil Counterpart: Tiffany to Sarah as both Junior and Ben respectively try to win their affections throughout the movie. However Tiffany's true nature isn't what Junior imagined whereas Sarah is genuinely a nice lady.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Junior drives Dr. Peabody and his bombshell nurse insane by poisoning them with their own nitrous oxide (i.e., "laughing gas") and then tying both of them up in braces and dental floss. He even hung Peabody by the braces on the (moving!) ceiling fan!
  • Inkblot Test: After Junior and his Dad get in a car accident, because Junior didn't want to see a Shrink, he undergoes this test to prove that he's perfectly normal.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Many.
    • Blade getting beaten in his hockey game after his team brutally beat Junior earlier in the film.
    • Duke and Phlim throughout the race.
    • Tiffany getting stripped.
  • Karma Houdini: Junior. Sure, Duke, Corky, and Blade were mean to him, but the way he dealt with them was pretty violent and brutal; especially with Corky. Motivation? Jealousy about the girl!
    • With Corky it is particularly played straight. Duke and Blade were actual bullies who harmed Junior physically multiple times. Corky, while not the nicest kid, never actually harmed Junior yet he was probably injured the most seriously. And what happens to Junior after that? Eats ice-cream with his dad! Perhaps one could argue Tiffany being a bitch was his comeuppance, but even then he seemed pretty content with it, even pranking her when he finds out.
  • Made-for-TV Movie
  • Naked People Are Funny: When Tiffany's dress is ripped off. Lampshaded by Junior when he throws in this remark:
    Junior: "Hey Tiffany, you forgot your dress."
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: Tiffany; see "Shaggy Dog" Story.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Corky McCullum is a parody of Macaulay Culkin.
    • Also averted quite literally as Corky was badly injured by Junior during the school play.
  • Rearing Horse: When it gets hit in the flank with Junior's slingshot, Corky's horse ends up in this stance, throwing its rider into the air and into the drink.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The whole film sees Junior's effort to gain the attention of a love interest and competing with three bullies to do it. After he finally overcomes the opposition, he finds that said girl is a snooty control freak. But it works out in the end as he meets a much nicer girl shortly after.
  • Shout-Out: Dr. Peabody is wearing, of all things, a Watchmen smiley-face-with-bloodstain button on his coat, though the blood looks slightly different in that it is covering the left eye instead of above it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Annie and Trixie from the second movie are neither seen or mentioned in this one.

Example of: