In the 95th year of the 20th Century, something extraordinary happened. Valeri Polyakov broke the record for days spent in space on the Mir Space Station at 366. Subsequently, the TV series Star Trek: Voyager premiered on UPN. And while the opening statements began for the O.J. Simpson trial, and America was wrapped up in race-baiting here on Earth, Dr. Bernard A. Harris, Jr. became the second African American in fucking space; a feat that is decidedly accomplished by not trying to decapitate your ex-wife. In an unrelated story, Scott Amedure confessed his crush on his heterosexual acquaintance on The Jenny Jones Show only to turn up murdered by that same acquaintance days later.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Internet search engines were getting off the ground, business was booming in the good ol’ US of A; and Canadian filmmaker James Orr (writer of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit) was about to release his magnum opus: Man of the House.
Man of the House continues Disney’s love affair with Jonathan Taylor Thomas which began with 1993’s The Lion King. It also existed during a period in history where Disney could not procure the licensing rights for songs by C+C Music Factory or Enigma to release on a soundtrack for Man of the House. As opposed to now, where Disney owns every major franchise ever created.
This is the description of the film on Disney’s website, where they are also attempting to sell DVD copies of the film for $12.95.
“Funnyman Chevy Chase is Jack, a guy who’s found the woman of his dreams. Too bad her stubborn 11-year-old son, Ben thinks Jack is a geek! As a test, Ben coaxes Jack into joining the YMCA Indian Guides. Chaos ensues as Jack struggles to prove to Ben that he’s not totally uncool! From rain dancing to building a teepee, Jack will do anything to win Ben’s approval – and his mom’s affection!”
So, other than being right up Elizabeth Warren’s alley with the rain dancing and teepee-building, this film has a lot to offer; namely “funnyman” Chevy Chase and his love interest, Farrah Fawcett. Fawcett does what she did best–exist and be remembered for not talking.
Like most Disney films around this time, Man of the House relies on two, seemingly unrelated, tropes: the child who needs to be taught an adult lesson, and the adult who inadvertently brings a child into a serious real-world life-and-death situation involving murderers. Practically every Disney film in this era mimicked some kind of already-existing action/drama adult franchise, and then forced in some subplot about a bratty Bart Simpson type kid.
The film centers around the relationship between Chevy Chase’s hot-shot attorney character, Jack, and JTT’s “no man will ever be good enough for my mom since my deadbeat dad skipped town” archetype, Ben. Ben hopes that he can keep his mother single forever, and I guess, one day live off her fixed income and rotting corpse. But Jack falls in love with her. You see, he’s the lawyer and she’s court sketch artist (a job that actually still exists)…so the fireworks are inevitable.
Man of the House sets the tension early by having Jack make the mistake of telling off the gangster son of a man he’s just sentenced to 50 years in prison. The gangster, Joey Renda, swears vengeance on Jack…which becomes a plot device that is completely forgotten by the time it becomes relevant again in the film.
“I’m 11. I hate girls,” is a line of dialogue that actually comes out of JTT’s character’s mouth when Chevy Chase attempts to make nervous small talk about relationships. It’s about this time that it becomes clear that Ben is James Orr’s “Mary Sue”…as well as obscenely evident that Orr has no idea how to write dialogue for an 11-year old. I’d imagine James Orr’s thought process for writing this character was “What would James Orr say if James Orr were trapped inside the supple, smooth young body of an 11-year old Jonathan Taylor Thomas? Oh, I know–I’m 11. I hate girls.”
Another Disney trope that crops up a lot during this era is the non-threatening “villain” in the adult. Because there are real threats in the world (the gangsters who won’t hesitate to kill children or adults), the villain in the child’s eyes has to be…well…less villainous; that is to say–not actually a bad guy in any way, shape or form. Jack does literally nothing wrong aside from loving a woman enough to want to move in with her, despite her fucking dickhead 11-year old son. He sings in the shower and accidentally calls Ben “Benny” a few times…which can be vexing, but in no way makes him a bad guy.
As a kid, I remember seeing Jack as a fucking tool. But, it’s very clear from an adult perspective, that he’s just a potential step-dad doing his absolute best.
Ben essentially treats Jack with the domestic equivalency of how Kevin McCallister treats the Wet Bandits; and with the same sadistic pleasure as Macaulay Culkin destroys lives in The Good Son. For no reason other than some slight inconveniences and a possible oedipal complex.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas fits in eerily well in Southern California where the movie is filmed, despite being from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; a fact that is a total shell-shock when it’s revealed that this is all taking place in Seattle, almost an hour into the film! Ben scolds Jack for throwing trash in the inappropriate recycling receptacles and actually complains about being made a huge breakfast in the morning.
“I’m 11. I hate eggs and bacon,” is something that Ben doesn’t actually say, but he might as well have. He says it in a much more whiny California (sorry…Seattle) way:
“Does the word cholesterol mean anything to you?” and “Jack’s trying to kill us with animal fat.”
Ben’s mother explains that she and Ben usually just have granola and yogurt for breakfast. Which, in any other movie, would expose Ben as a little pussy who gets his shit pushed in at school. But not so fast! This is Man of the House! Ben is too cool for school. He’s friends with the only black kid in the school; and winds up rescuing squirrely runt, Norman Bronski, from a locker (with the combination 38-24-36, oh James Orr, you perv, you). That’s a joke for the parents.
Norman is a YMCA Indian Guide, which is a Boy Scouts rip-off that furthers the plot device because of its nature of being a “Father and Son” activity. This is also where the story picks up–and gets Disney–racist; which is to say “funny.” At this point we meet the other Indian Guide dads: Art LaFleur, David Shiner, and Jason Sudeikis’ uncle–George Wendt. We get heavy into the bonding rituals, which are just standard and decidedly uninspired camping and party games. Ben actively tries to humiliate Jack, and winds up costing him a huge case at work, and his relationship with Ben’s Mom. Understandably, this makes Jack want to quit the Indian Guides; but he’s determined to fix things and make it work, for the benefit of his relationship, and to make Ben happy.
It’s at this point that Jack finds out that Ben’s whole crybaby schtick was bullshit, and he decides to get revenge…well…Dad Revenge, that is, by taking the Indian Guides super seriously just to spite an 11-year old. Jack enlists the help of an Indian Chief he happens to be friends with (because who isn’t?) and the “revenge” turns out to be a montage of positive training, spirituality, and bonding for the father and son teams of the Indian Guides. Who knew? I figured all they’d have to do would be go protest an oil pipeline or cry over some litter.
The boys learn useful skills for a possible showdown toward the end of the movie, which include–and are also limited to–tomahawk-chucking, archery and doing a rain dance.
And that showdown can’t come soon enough! The third act kicks off with a bang as Jack is running late for the big canoeing trip, when he is suddenly attacked by the mafia guys in a truck who have also, evidently, cut the brakes on his car…to make his death look like an accident. I’ll remind you, this is a Disney movie for children.
Chevy Chase doesn’t die. But his SUV winds up crashing into the Puget Sound (in Seattle). Meanwhile, back at the Indian Guides, the gang waits for poor Jack for exactly 47 minutes before leaving him, and Ben for dead. As the Indian Guides leave, we get an emotional flashback to when Ben’s actual father left him forever, showing JTT’s true range as a child star.
Before finding out from his boss that his “car accident” was no accident, Jack promises Ben that he definitely won’t miss the next Indian Guide camping trip; a promise he intends to keep…even if it means risking his job…or his life. Jack’s boss wants him to work in Portland temporarily until they can find out who’s trying to murder him, but Jack says “NO WAY JOSE!” What’s more important than his life? Right now, a fucking camping trip with fucking Ben.
Side note: this movie would have bee 100x better if Jack found out that Ben cut his brakes. But we don’t get that lucky in life, do we?
So, Jack and Ben get to go on that camping trip, with the rest of the Indian Guides. But guess who shows up to ruin the fun? Fucking A–The Mafia Guys! How did they know?!
It winds up being Ben who happens upon the Mafia Guys, who inexplicably spend the night in the woods despite giving up on their plan to make Jack’s death look like an accident after one try. Now, it seems, they just plan to shoot him, and, if necessary, murder everyone else on the camping trip, too. Uh oh!
Jack tells everyone, including Ben to head back to the Ranger’s station to get help while he leads the men with guns up a mountain. Solid plan. Of course, Ben and the adults want to stay and help–even suggesting the kids fight the men with guns. Looks like the father/son bonding and rain dancing went to their heads.
It doesn’t matter, though. After merely seconds, Jack finds himself fucked and trapped under a log. His master plan foiled. Luckily, Ben is a piece of shit who doesn’t listen and has no sense of self-preservation, because he’s back to help out his would-be step-dad get out from under that log using nothing but pure JTT strength.
As it turns out, Ben’s Indian mentor, Red Crow, taught him one last lesson–if you get in trouble, just listen to nature. And that’s when Ben and Jack discover their secret weapon: BEEEEES!
After sharpening their arrows and axes, Little Wing and Squatting Dog (that’s Ben and Jack, Indian-style) retrieve a beehive, which Ben does with zen-like nature powers, despite only having ever met an actual Indian once. They make easy work of two of the three bad guys, but are then caught at gunpoint by the third and forced into an abandoned mine(?) which is then loaded with cartoon-style red-wrapped TNT.
The boys attempt to reverse-psychology their way out of this mess, but it doesn’t pan out. Only one option left: have your father and son lead get blown to bits in a mine shaft. WAIT–what’s that?! Holy fucking shit–it’s the other Indian Guides, and they manage to play-fight their way around getting shot by three adults with guns to save the day! Jack knocks out the main mafia guy, impresses Ben, and everything is back to normal.
By the end of the movie, we’re left to assume that Jack and Ben are now solidified as father and son, and Farrah Fawcett, who serves no real purpose in the film at all, is not dead of anal cancer.
Man of the House was one of my favorite mid-90’s Disney fuck-arounds. It gave us TV tropes like the classic Indian chant “HeyHowAreYa?” and the last watchable Chevy Chase feature film up-to-and-including Vegas Vacation. There’s so much to love here, with treats in store at every turn.
You get Chevy Chase’s dry, humorless acting, attempting to make the best of the situation, while being impossible to work with. You’ve got Richard Portnow, the stereotypical Italian bad guy in everything you’ve ever, or will ever see. You’ve got Home Improvement’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas, playing cool as you watch him slowly age out of being Teen Beat Disney-cute. And finally, you’ve got the constant and not-at-all subtle belittling of the proud culture of some ridiculous Native American tribe, of which this film is almost certainly a constant and unyielding thorn in the side.
And that makes all 90-minutes worth it to the moon and back.