What is it about precocious child actors that induces anger, if not outright violence, in even the gentlest movie-goers? Even as a nine year-old seduced by the endless Nintendo plugs within “The Wizard,” I found it a bit absurd that the pre-pubescent kids played by Fred Savage and Jennie Lewis were able to hitchhike cross-country on skateboards, con grown men into gambling on video games, and repeatedly triumph against larger, menacing figures, often chasing them in cars and wielding crowbars. There’s an invincibility given to children in material like this, and “Home Alone” and “Problem Child,” that is no doubt meant to rope in pre-adolescent audiences, but the producers extend no decency towards the older siblings and parents that are forced to accompany them. When the kids in these films are not only smarter than adults but embody the tics, mannerisms and speech patterns of 40 year-olds (like the angry, jargon-spouting child lawyer that represents Elijah Wood in “North,” for instance), the level of contrivance becomes unbearable.
“Jimmy the Kid,” adapted by Sam Bobrick from Donald Westlake’s novel and directed by Gary Nelson, is the most egregious example of this type of film. Not only does the title character (played by 13 year-old Gary Coleman), the wise-beyond-his-years son of two millionaire country singers, outsmart the quartet of morons that kidnap him; he exhibits zero fear, or even confusion, at his abduction. Because this is a movie, and Jimmy represents not a child but a dopey screenwriter’s concept, he reacts to his kidnappers with a collection of smirks, shrugs and wisecracks, as if they were shoe store clerks that brought him the wrong pair of sneakers. Unlike in “Home Alone,” which at least had the energy to make the two adult crooks sadistic, the criminals here are sluggish and pathetic. The dumbest child alive could outsmart them, so the smug little one-liners emanating from Coleman seem all the more superfluous.
Jimmy isn’t your average smart-alecky kid. We first see him in a formal business suit, reading “Getting in Touch with the Real You” and lamenting to his maid about feeling “over-the-hill.” His parents, who sing appalling country music (featured song: “Keep Your Paws Off My Dog”) that has somehow made them rich, mostly abandon their son, leaving him in their majestic mansion when they go on tour and sending him to a shrink (who of course talks in Sigmund Freud’s accent). He’s supposed to be maladjusted, but he just seems like a whinier version of Gary Coleman himself. It’s hard to feel bad for a kid that has everything.
Meanwhile, Paul Le Mat, as a growly cat burglar, and Walter Olkewicz, as his fat, dimwitted sidekick (is there any other kind of sidekick?) have tired of botched petty crime and decide to kidnap Coleman for serious cash. Some of the “Three Stooges”-esque humor generates a few guffaws, as when Olkewicz’s car keys get lost in his caramel candy, or when, in creating a fake Detour sign, he misspells the word as “Deture.” But by the fifth time we’ve watched him and several other characters stumble over chairs, hit their heads on things, faint on cue or otherwise lose equilibrium, the brain starts to feel a little abused. The shrieking car chases and loud, obvious score (oscillating between a “Pink Panther”-type theme and disco synth nonsense) doesn’t help much. Ruth Gordon, as Olkewicz’s disapproving mom, is on-hand for the kidnapping, but it’s a pretty low-wattage role; the anticipated scene of her walloping Olkewicz over the head never arrives. Dee Wallace compensates for her thin role as Le Mat’s girlfriend by shrieking every line in a sing-song, child-like fashion. It’s a bit excruciating to watch; unfortunately, she’s virtually the only character that doesn’t get knocked out.
There’s plenty more willfully dumb humor here, which the film itself tends to comment on. As if we can’t tell this is a low-brow comedy, Coleman directly asks his abductors, “Who planned this thing, the Three Stooges?” At the end of the movie, when the last ridiculous plot twist is revealed, Coleman winks at the camera, and the character hearing about the plot twist falls over a park bench. Well, no one said it was subtle.
The rest of the hi-jinks are either hilarious or awful, depending on your point of view. Pat Morita somehow plays a more pandering, insulting role than his Mr. Miyagi, as Coleman’s chauffeur. Blind as a bat and wearing super thick glasses, his sole purpose is to get all the characters into near-deadly scrapes. “First Pearl Harbor, now this,” one of them grumbles at him. When the kidnappers arrive wearing plastic animal masks, Morita exclaims, “There’s a mouse in here!” A detective, for no reason, gets dolled up in drag, and assaults a cop for calling him ugly. Coleman’s dad, who’s just agreed to sponsor a chain of Greek restaurants, offers the kidnappers free meals at the restaurant in place of the ransom. A port-a-potty gets attached to the back of a car; then the car goes over a train track and the train hits the port-a-potty and the port-a-potty explodes.
When the nonsense calms down, we get a speech from Jimmy, spelling out the whole lesson of the movie to his dumbfounded captors, as bittersweet harmonica plays. He learned to be a kid and they learned to be better people. When he’s finished, Paul Le Mat delivers the movie’s sole funny line: “I didn’t understand a word he said but it sure came off nice.”
“Jimmy the Kid” slips beyond the threshold of tolerable movie stupidity. It’s not a slumming good time, it’s brain slaughter.
In a 2009 Los Angeles Times article about Donald Westlake, the author’s friend and publisher, Otto Penzler, noted Westlake’s erratic Hollywood career. Penzler was said to have a “special disdain” for “Jimmy the Kid.”
Dee Wallace, asked in a September 2006 News & Observer interview if she’s ever recognized for her work in “Jimmy the Kid,” reportedly cracked up laughing. “No, that’s not one that people usually pick out. But I sure had a lot of fun doing it.”
Le Mat, whom I interviewed last fall, also said he enjoyed making “Jimmy the Kid.” “That didn’t make any money,” he said. “I enjoyed working with Gary. But the elements that make up the comedy…if they’re not funny, then you don’t have an audience.”
The film is available only on VHS.