Clifford (1994) – A Review


The notorious 1994 comedy about a terrorizing ten-year-old boy played by Martin Short. Also starring Charles Grodin, Mary Steenburgen and Dabney Coleman.

Martin Short Charles Grodin Clifford 1994

It’s that notorious movie that stars Martin Short as a troublemaking ten-year-old boy named Clifford – and yes, it’s bad.

Short is the title character whose big dream is to visit the amusement park Dinosaur World. His parents pass their little tyke off to his uncle Charles Grodin. Amazingly, Grodin agrees to look after Clifford, only because he’s in the middle of cementing a marriage proposal to Mary Steenburgen, who loves children. He believes once she sees how great he is with his nephew that will secure her love.

Little does Grodin realize what a terror Clifford is. Soon the pint-size devil is embarrassing his uncle, gets him arrested, gets him fired and destroys his house. It’s all meant to be a riot as we laugh at what befalls on the hapless Grodin, but it ends up being depressing, unfunny and having us hate Clifford as much as Grodin does.

Clifford 1994 Martin Short Charles Grodin Mary SteenburgenClifford is no doubt an odd movie. It’s not so much with its premise. It’s basically Problem Child. Actually I believe this was filmed way before Problem Child ever came out. It was filmed and sat on the shelf for several years before its release because of Orion’s bankruptcy. So, it technically pre-dated Problem Child.

Anyway, the premise of a child terror is anything that strange, but having Short playing the kid the movie comes off as a bizarre gimmick that doesn’t work and just makes it especially….well, odd.

Still it might have worked. It could have been a surreal, goofy comedy. It fails at that, since it commits the biggest offense a comedy can make – it’s just not funny. I can’t really point to one joke or gag that works.

There’s really nothing clever about Clifford’s rage of terror either. It’s just mean-spirited ‘pranks’ that Grodin endures, a guy who I don’t think is anywhere near deserving of this abuse. It’s not like he needs to learn much of lesson in the movie and this bratty kid is going to teach him it. So, I just felt bad for him the whole time being the victim of Short’s abuse.

They do this bookending scene of an ‘old Clifford’ relaying his story to a young troublemaking boy. We’re meant to understand that through his experience with his uncle, Clifford learned some kind of lesson and stopped being such a brat. It’s all totally pointless. I have no idea why they kept the old Short scenes. Plus, he looks weird in the old age makeup.

Clifford 1994 Martin Short Mary Steenburgen Charles Grodin Dabney ColemanIf ‘Clifford’ was being played by a real kid, then this might have worked better. Had they gotten one of those cute, adorable movie kids doing these dastardly things the contrast might have helped with the laughs.

Instead it’s the adult Short persecuting Grodin. I guess they thought that that alone would be funny, but I really disliked this kid character and didn’t find anything funny or misunderstood about him.

I was hoping the whole time he would finally get his comeuppance with someone taking him over their knee!

Another striking thing is the cast they got for this movie. Steenburgen is always charming, cute and gives a touch of class to any movie she appears in. Yes, including this one. She comes off fine in this. Same with Dabney Colman, who has the thankless role of being Grodin’s boss. It’s nice to see them, but we know they’re much more talented than appearing in tripe like this.

Grodin basically plays the outraged victim the whole movie. It’s really not that tough a task for him. He was doing similar stuff in those Beethoven movies with dogs jumping on him and messing up his living room couch.

Like it or not all the attention falls on Short – and he certainly does not come off as well as his co-stars.

Charles Grodin Martin Short Clifford 1994I’ve always had a distant feeling towards Short. I loved him on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. In sketches playing goofy characters he could be brilliant, but as for his movie career, not so much.

For me he never possessed the charisma of being a top comedy star. I never placed him in the same class as a Bill Murray, Steve Martin or John Candy. He was more B-level when it came to his movie career.

He appeared in a few movies, but never really excelled in them. Innerspace is probably my favorite movie of his, and I think of him more in that as a co-star.

Him holding his own in a movie, never worked for me, especially here. He does a few of those weird dance moves he’s done ever since creating Ed Grimley and continues to do today, but there’s really nothing notable about how he plays this Clifford. I would have thought maybe he would try to use a silly voice or something, but not really. Maybe this character could work in a five-minute sketch, but for a whole movie he just becomes exhausting.

When Clifford finally managed to get released, it was ignored by audiences and since has become something of this infamous movie for being so bad. I recall Siskel and Ebert having a real fun time reviewing it.

Martin Short as Clifford 1994 comedyIt would be so much better if I could say, “Oh you have to see this movie! It’s such a train wreck! You won’t believe it!”, but sadly I can’t. I don’t think there’s really anything about it that propels it to that bad level.

It’s bad, but it’s bad not in any real fun way. Once you hear the gimmick of Short playing a little boy it’s all done, and the movie doesn’t have anything else to offer. It’s just an unfunny comedy.

In a cinematic landscape that gave us White Chicks, The Hottie and the Nottie, where Adam Sandler films actually drew audiences in to watch them and where miraculously Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have had film careers, Clifford doesn’t seem all that bad or bizarre. It’s just boring.

That’s the best compliment I can give to Clifford.

Roger Ebert talking about Clifford

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