Saturday Night Live has been a stepping stone toward big screen success for many of its cast members. However, the show’s first big star, Chevy Chase, famously left for movie stardom after just one season and ended up struggling a bit at the box office for several years. Sure we eventually got films like Vacation and Fletch…but before that there were the likes of 1981’s Modern Problems.
Chase plays Max, an air traffic controller whose life is falling apart. Not only is his job absolutely miserable, but his live-in girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) has decided to leave him. His ex-wife Lorraine (Mary Kay Place) and wheelchair bound friend Brian (Brian Doyle Murray) do their best to help Max out, but nothing seems to work. Things get worse when Max keeps running into Darcy and her new boyfriend Barry (Mitch Kreindel) just about everywhere he goes.
Just when it looks like things can’t get worse for Max, he ends up driving home one night behind a tanker truck full of “nuclear waste.” It ends up spraying green goo on his car, leaving Max with a nice emerald glow. The next day, Max starts to notice things flying around the room and soon realizes that he is the one controlling them. That’s right folks, “nuclear waste” gives people telekinetic powers.
The next time Max runs into Darcy and Barry he uses his new found powers to cause his rival to have a nosebleed that sprays like a lawn sprinkler. This sends Barry to the hospital and leaves Max the chance to rekindle things with Darcy. Before you know it the two are back together, especially after Max uses his powers to make Darcy multi-orgazmic. Gradually, though, Max’s powers start to drive him crazy. This leads to disastrous results when he and Darcy spend the weekend at a beach house with Brian, Lorraine and a self-absorbed author (Dabney Coleman).
Forget for a moment that the premise of Modern Problems is about as dumb as you can get. Forget that after being bathed in “nuclear waste,” Chase should be dead or at the very least turned into a Toxic Avenger-like creature. It’s a comedy, it’s not meant to be realistic…I get all that. The problem is the film is that it is just too mean-spirited to be funny. In the first big scene where Max’s powers are put to use he uses them to turn some poor guys nose into a gusher of blood. The scene is gross and not even remotely funny. Almost every time Chase uses his powers it is to inflict physical harm on someone else. It’s just not funny.
On a whole the film lacks focus. In its final act it completely veers off course and tries to become a half-baked parody of The Exorcist. Chase ends up floating above his bed and speaking in a Linda Blair voice as Nell Carter dances around the room sprinkling “demon powder.” It comes across as such a pathetically desperate attempt to salvage the film. The ending that it all leads up to is beyond stupid. Spoiler alert here…but apparently people with nuclear waste induced telekinesis can be cured by being struck by lightning while hanging on to a TV antennae.
About the only thing Modern Problems has going for it is that it lives up to its title. After all, it has a ton of problems. It’s vile, ugly and just plain unfunny. Every actor has ups and downs in their career. This may have been the lowest point for Chevy Chase.