When my 8 year-old nephew told me that the comedy creep-fest Clifford was the funniest film he had ever seen, I almost wept with pride. You see, when I was a young’un, my brother stole a VHS copy of Clifford. He made my sister (my nephew’s mother) and I watch it. We did watch it, after school for months. We lost our shit each time.
USA, 1994, Paul Flaherty
On the DVD cover it appears to be a run-of-a-mill Hollywood comedy misfire, featuring a favourable but ill-advised cast standing in front of a burning house that doesn’t actually appear in the movie.
Richard Kind and Charles Grodin, respectively play Clifford’s massively-stressed out dad (known to Clifford as pappy) and Clifford’s massively-stressed out uncle. It also features Mary Steenburgen, Dabney Coleman, Fred Savage’s less famous brother and of course slapsticking tiny man Martin Short as 10 year-old Clifford.
That’s right, a 40 YEAR-OLD ADULT MAN PLAYS A 10 YEAR-OLD HUMAN BOY. Yes, that is baffling and no, it isn’t integral to the plot, like in 2009’s Orphan. It makes no bloody sense why. Did Martin Short kneecap all the children auditioning for the part? I don’t fucking know.
Short briefly talks about it in this 1994 Regis & Kathie Lee interview, like it’s a common thing to do in cinema and audiences wouldn’t question why a 40 YEAR-OLD ADULT MAN IS PLAYING A 10 YEAR-OLD HUMAN BOY.
The other moment worth seeing in this insipid but fascinating interview is discovering Grodin improvised the best line in the film. I’ll get to that later. Calm the hell down.
Paul Flaherty directed Clifford. He wrote and directed on the famed sketch show SCTV and other Martin Short shows including Primetime Glick and the aptly-named The Martin Short Show. He also directed George Burns’ completely plausible bodyswapping classic 18 Again!.
Flaherty brings a cheap TV look to Clifford but successfully fools the viewer that Martin Short is a child and not a fully-grown man. I guess. The film is shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer John A. Alonzo of Scarface and Chinatown fame.
Jay Dee Rock and Bobby von Hayes are credited for writing. But they have no other IMDB credits, and because my facebook-stalking of the key people behind the scenes on Clifford came up with nought, I’m assuming these names are fakes.
Clifford begins in the future, coincidentally starting similarly to The Princess Bride, with an old man imparting a cracking story to a wise-ass Savage brother. In this case Clifford is an old priest warning Fred Savage’s less famous brother about what might happen if Fred Savage’s less famous brother continues on his trouble-making trek.
Cut to Clifford as a 10 year-old reprobate on a plane wearing a bowtie/suit/shorts combo. As my nephew sagely put, “You don’t see any kids about town in a suit like that.” I now know what I’m getting him for his birthday.
So Clifford and his toy dinosaur Stephan are flying to Honolulu, while desperately trying to convince his stroke-waiting-to-happen pappy and his alcoholic mother to stop in LA so he can visit Dinosaur World. At one disturbing moment kissing his mother’s arm, calling her, “Sweet one that birthed me.” Most disturbingly, as a teenager, this is how I addressed my mum in the birthday and Christmas cards I made for her.
Once Clifford causes the plane to emergency land in LA, Clifford’s pappy is clutching at straws. He needs to get to Honolulu for business but he doesn’t want Clifford around sticking dinosaurs up his nose.
Julian convinces his brother Martin (Grodin) to look after Clifford. Fortunately, Martin needs to convince his ladyfriend Sarah (Steenburgen) that he does in fact like children. Cue Clifford and his perpetual psychopathic smile.
Clifford is hell-bent on visiting Dinosaur World, but uncle Martin’s job, designing a new public transportation system for LA (which LA fucking needs), gets in the way of Clifford’s pursuit, Clifford turns full mental.
Each time Short and Grodin are on screen together, cinematic magic happens. That’s if your idea of cinematic magic is Grodin popping forehead veins every time Short unleashes Clifford’s unbridled creepiness.
Such moments include Clifford paying a fat boy for his dinosaur costume and then leaving the fat boy in the toilets with nothing but his underwear and a palmful of cash; swapping uncle Martin’s chapstick for lipstick (my nephew’s favourite moment); and developing a weird crush on Martin’s ladyfriend. Not to mention whenever Clifford innocently plays his recorder. Or when he pulls a face – the other thing my nephew noticed. “You don’t see kids about town pulling faces like that.” Alright Isaac, shut up and let me finish writing.
After Clifford has successfully ruined uncle Martin’s life. Martin goes into a Zen-like insanity and almost murders Clifford at Dinosaur World. And then saves him. Phew.
Clifford raises an important question for viewers. Is it okay to violently harm bad children? Yes.
Clifford concludes with old priest Clifford in the future preaching a message to Fred Savage’s less famous brother about how he’ll never be more famous than his brother. Or something. I don’t know. All I know is this film tarnished my childhood. Thanks to Clifford I have on occasional sung this song on train platforms.
I can only hope it tarnishes my nephew’s childhood.
Short and Grodin give amazing performances. So much so, after sharing Clifford with my girlfriend for the first time (she loves me even more now), their performances sent me on a weekend long Martin and Grodin YouTube binge. Sadly, not long after Clifford was released Grodin retired from acting (albeit appearing in the occasional role).
Clifford was kept on the shelf for 3 years, but trust me, if you haven’t seen it and when you do, not only will you be asking “Why does this exist?” you will also be asking “Thank you?”
Now, here is Charles Grodin’s aforementioned amazing improvised line. This is the greatest moment of Martin Short and Grodin’s career. Probably.