Martin Mull is a hotel manager who moves to Chicago to take on a prestigious new job at the posh Ambassador East.
The problems with his eccentric mother (Ruth Gordon) – who tries to pick up guys in the cocktail lounge – seem minimal compared with the real problems faced at school by his 15-year-old son Clifford (disarmingly played by Chris Makepeace).
At home, Clifford is a precocious kid, wise beyond his years, who lives a charmed life in a luxury-hotel atmosphere that would have turned Eloise green with envy. But adjusting to the battle-scarred front lines in Chicago’s public school system requires more than brains.
The local hood demands Clifford’s lunch money as extortion in return for his life, the other kids live in mortal terror of the school bullies, and the teachers are too submerged in blackboard jungle red tape to be much help (to get the kids’ attention, the English teacher discusses Romeo and Juliet as a play about “two kids who were hot for each other.”)
Clifford uses his noggin and employs the biggest boy in the school to protect him. The irony is that the incredible hulk the kids think they’re being protected by turns out to be more sensitive than they are.
Clifford’s bodyguard is a coward when an even bigger bully destroys his motorcycle and the film’s sweet mystery is why he got that way.
There’s honesty and depth in the sparse dialogue, and no scenes are wasted. Director Tony Bill has distilled from his young cast performances of great candour and truth.
Makepeace is a delight, and Adam Baldwin makes a formidable debut as the bogus bodyguard with problems of his own.
Craig Richard Nelson
Dean R. Miller