I have a bit of a confession to make on this one: Modern Problems might very well have been my first Cinematic Anticipation Obsession. By which I mean that, at the tender age of eight, I saw the commercials and trailers for this movie and my reaction was OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE IT MUST BE MINE. Just based on commercials of Chevy Chase glowing green and things flying around him, I had already decided that THIS MOVIE WAS AWESOME and nothing would brook my opinion of this idea. Had there been an internet in 1981, I would have been on it, exclaiming my excitement and anticipation at 24bpm.
I didn’t end up seeing it until at least a year or more later when it finally showed up on HBO or so. Because I was eight, and in 1981 a PG rating really meant, “Seriously, parents, think about this first.” I'm pretty sure it did not interest my parents in the slightest, and they were likely even less interested in bringing their eight-year-old son. But I was excited about a movie with green glowing telekinetic effects, so once I could see it, I did, and I kept seeing it.
But let’s make something very clear: the green glowing telekinetic effects are more or less the only reason this movie exists. I mean, the plot is quite thin, so I’m pretty sure the decision to make this movie boiled down to a conversation of, “This effect is something we can do now.” “Then let us make a movie in which we do this effect.”
The plot is basically this: Chevy Chase plays an embittered air traffic controller who is certain his girlfriend (Patti D’Arbanville) is cheating on him. He is spiraling into deeper amounts of awful with his jealousy and bitterness and the lack of power he has in the world. After an evening of indignities, the roof of his convertible gets stuck open, and he drives home behind a toxic waste truck. Said toxic waste splashes onto him, and he gets telekinetic powers.
As you do.
Once he gets a handle on what he’s got, he starts on a little gambit of petty revenge against coworkers and rivals, as well as winning back Patti D’Arbanville, all while becoming more confident in his life in a deeply toxic way. This involves making stuff fly around Air Traffic Control, giving Patti's suitors power nosebleeds, and inflating a ballet dancer’s crotch. I'm really not sure what the inflating crotch accomplished. But he wins her back, and then of course, he's telekinetically giving Patti D’Arbanville mindblowing orgasms from the other room.
As you do.
Seriously, it’s about three minutes of Chevy puttering around in the kitchen, making a smoothie in the blender or something, while Patti is going full Chernobyl in the bedroom. And I have to admit, in my youth I expended far too much brainpower trying to make direct correlation connections between Chevy’s smoothie-blending actions and what he might be specifically doing to her. Perhaps because Patti hits a crescendo of fever pitch that seems to match pouring from the blender.
The back-half of the movie seems to have been imported from a previously-written script that didn’t involve telekinesis, as it is a complete left turn from where we've been. Chevy and Patti drive out to a beach house for a getaway weekend with friends. In this whole part you’ve got Mary Kay Place, Dabny Coleman, Nell Carter and Brian Doyle Murray in a wheelchair. Why is Brian Doyle Murray in a wheelchair? He just is. Maybe it’s a metaphor for Chevy feeling frustrated and powerless despite being perfectly healthy, while this guy is totally laid back and easy-going, despite being in a wheelchair. But it’s a big reason why I think the whole “beach house” part of the movie is imported from some other script. Plus: Dabny Coleman shows his bare ass. For reasons.
Dabny Coleman really is above and beyond in this movie, and gloriously so. There’s an utterly random scene where he’s standing on the beach in a bathrobe, tape recorder strapped around his neck, where he recites a “partial list of his favorite things”. Why? I don’t know, but there’s not a word that comes from Mr. Coleman’s mouth that isn’t delightfully absurd. “I’m a goddamn good-looking man!”
Things come to a head as Chevy goes from “confident due to his power” to “overconfident” to “batshit crazy”. It's a whole escalation where he floats up Dabny Coleman and drops him in the mashed potatoes. Shit goes crazy, and Nell Carter—with absurd Haitian accent—tries to exorcise him with her “demon powder”. This gives us the signature scene, where Chevy floats around the bed and snorts up all the demon powder like it was super-cocaine, and cackles, “HAHAHAHAHA I LIKE IT!”
And then-- on a dime-- he freaks out and says he’s a monster and heads to the roof. Patti D’Arbanville talks him down, but not before he’s hit by lightning, which transfers his power to Nell Carter through the TV antenna. And then everything’s great as they watch the sunrise.
One of the things that always sort of troubled me about this movie is the way it tries to have its cake and eat it with Chevy’s power. He does “fun” petty things to vent his frustration, and the movie treats it like he’s winning. It pretty much makes getting back together with Patti D’Arbanville the prize that he’s earned. But then he acts just plain crazy, and the movie wants us to believe that it’s not him, but the power itself. Yeah, it’s funny that Nell Carter treats him like he’s possessed by a demon, but he acts like he’s possessed by a demon. And then when he loses the power, he’s “cured” and calm again. Because when you think about it, everything he does is pretty horrible, but the movie wants you to feel like that’s not really him doing it.
Like I said, it feels like some other movie—more dramedy than comedy—is living inside this movie, that’s just about an ATC who loses his mind, and the telekinetic stuff got imported onto it. I mean, it takes twenty-five minutes—a full third of the running time—before we even have the empowering toxic waste incident. I wonder if that might have actually been a better movie.
But it certainly wouldn’t have earned an eight-year-old’s fanaticism.