Control Nathan Rabin: Ladybugs (1992)
The 1992 cross-dressing soccer comedy Ladybugs, the latest "winner" in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give this site's patrons an opportunity to choose between which of two films I must watch, then write about, is just barely a movie. Yet it still possesses a cultural impact and prominence four of the Dangerfield movies I’ve written about for No Respect January so far—My 5 Wives, Angels with Angles, The Godson and Back by Midnight—could only dream of.
A big part of that is attributable to the film’s theatrical release. Unlike the quartet of sad late-period losers listed above, Ladybugs was reviewed by all the big newspapers, magazines and TV critics. Posters for it adorned movie theater lobbies. Its awful title graced marquees. The public at least had an opportunity to see the movie as auteur Sidney J. Furie intended: on the big-screen, like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001.
But it went beyond that. Because Ladybugs is a movie about kids, released at a time when the industry was less obsessed with pandering relentlessly to the Younglings in search of that sweet, sweet, kiddie dollar, it took on an importance to my generation disproportionate to its negligible quality.
If you were a tween or teen girl who was in love with tragic teen heartthrob and Galaxy DSV star Jonathan Brandis—who committed suicide in 2003 following a sharp professional downturn—as many, many young women were at the time, then the movie possessed a hormonal magic that had nothing to do with its clumsily staged slamming-door farce shenanigans or inane plotting.
Similarly, if you were Brandis’ age when this was made, I suspect you would be a lot less creeped out by the way the film sexualizes underaged girls in the 12 to 14 range than I was as a 41 year old father. In the film’s most insane and unforgivable sequence, snotty, sneering, soccer-obsessed jock Matthew (Jonathan Brandis) spies Kimberly Mullen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his dad’s boss for the first time playing soccer and fantasizes about her in her underwear, just a ladybug-print sports bra and panties, running sensually in slow-motion to the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream” before imagining her in a series of similarly sexualized, age-inappropriate ensembles.
Here’s a life hack for broad comedy filmmakers: if your comedy hinges on the ripe sensuality of a 14 or 15 year old, and someone lusting after that 14 or 15 year old, don’t make that movie! We can do without it! There’s no chance that your movie will be so hilarious and so entertaining that it will make people overlook, excuse or ignore the heavy air of pedophilia hanging heavy over your motion picture.
I would give this advice to the makers of Blame it to Rio (that dum-dum director Stanley Donen, and his equally clueless screenwriter Larry Gelbart both have much to learn about storytelling from an unemployable Juggalo and failed former film critic like myself) as well as My Father the Hero and I would definitely give it to the makers of Ladybugs.
Ah, but Ladybugs is a Rodney Dangerfield youth girls soccer comedy, which means that when Rodney does sex jokes, it’s in the vicinity of 12 to 14 year old girls for whom he proves a surprisingly wise and sensitive mentor.
I feel sorry for Shaw. Her representation shouldn’t just have said no to the script as wildly inappropriate for a girl who just turned 15, but burned it ritualistically to purge her career of its dark spirits.
Shaw, you might remember, earned a strange, accidental notoriety when blogger Jeffrey Wells sent 3:10 to Yuma writer-director James Mangold a rightfully mocked missive where he essentially said, “Hey pardner, I didn’t hardly enjoy 3:10 to Yuma the way I did Walk the Line, but I reckon that Vinessa Shaw is one comely lass. The nude scene done got a cowpoke feeling mighty amorous, so I was hoping you could help a fellow cowboy out and slide me some titty pictures of this fetching filly. I would be much obliged, and you would be following the time honored code of bros over hos.”
Mangold did the only sane thing and slid the email over to the snark-masters over at Deadline Hollywood, who let the world know that Wells is somehow an even bigger creep than they had previously imagined, and in the hall of Hollywood Creeps, Wells has long occupied a place of reverse distinction.
Astonishingly, Wells’ tone-deaf letter—which, adorably, Wells somehow imagined would be received warmly—is even worse. Here’s a healthy excerpt:
“I am on my knees, Mr. Mangold, saying thank you, thank you and thank you again for persuading Vinessa Shaw to do her first flat-out, boob-baring nude scene. I was in heaven as Crowe drew her on his notepad. Please tell me there’s somebody on the Yuma team who can slip me some stills of the shooting that day… please. I’m serious. I know you think like I do in this respect, so please … as one good hombre to another … you don’t have to be the guy who passes along the stills. Just tell the still photographer or the editor or whomever caught her as she posed. I’m not a sleazebag either — I don’t pass along stills to the Mr. Skin crowd or my friends. This would be just for my, myself & I. At the very least it would be great to grab some frame captures from the film itself. Or some unused footage of Shaw and Crowe doing whatever. Out-takes, perhaps.”
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves and arguably even a little distracted. In Ladybugs Rodney Dangerfield is cast against type as Chester Lee, an everyman salesman obsessed with getting the big promotion from the boss that will finally afford him the money and prestige to marry fiance Bess (Ilene Graff from Mr. Belvedere), to the aggravation of her sullen son Matthew (Brandis) who is introduced staring at butts on television, as the young people do.
Chester and Matthew’s relationship got off to a rocky start. Are you kidding? Chester gave Matthew a BB gun; in return Matthew gave him a sweatshirt with a BULLSEYE on the back! According to Chester, Matthew’s got a weird sense of humor. I mean, one Easter he gave his future father-in-law chocolate bunnies made of EX-LAX!
In many, if not most of his films, Dangerfield plays big machers, vulgar millionaires who can get away with behaving with Rodney Dangerfield-style irreverence because their money protects them from the consequences of their actions.
In Ladybugs, in sharp contrast, he plays a sniveling sycophant for whom the path to success is paved with ass-kissing. Before meeting up with the big boss to plead poignantly for a promotion, he practices by kissing up to the boss’ matronly secretary. To our eyes, greeting a co-worker by “Hey sexy”, humorously alluding to that coworker having a past in the sex trade by quipping “I bet in your day, you sold a few things yourself” and complimenting her by telling her she has “plenty of heat left in the old furnace” might constitute clear-cut sexual harassment. In the world of Rodney Dangerfield movies, where feminism is forever a crazy new fad on the verge of blowing over, it falls under the category of “sexy compliments.” A lot of Rodney’s offensive cinematic behavior over the years falls under the weird rubric of “sexy compliments”, a context that doesn’t excuse anything, but at least provides an appropriately retro framework for its bizarre mix of retro gender politics and inappropriate smuttiness.
In an attempt to impress his oblivious boss and win that hotly sought promotion, and with it the marriage and wedding, Chester somehow ends up volunteering to coach the Ladybugs, a fabulously successful girl’s youth soccer team that has shed all but one of their players over the summer, and subsequently devolved from a fearsome dynasty to a wacky gang of underdogs in the Bad News Bears/Mighty Ducks mold.
Since Chester knows nothing about soccer, he recruits his secretary Julie Benson (Jackee Harry) to be his assistant, since she conveniently also knows nothing about soccer. Julie is introduced talking about how men just want to have sex but they have to buy the cow vis a vis marriage and commitment and whatnot and later expresses a fear of going on welfare (“Goodbye job, hello welfare!” are her exact words) She also engages in a sour minute-long debate with Dangerfield about how black people are natural athletes who are better at sports than white people, with Dangerfield’s character muttering just a little too bitterly about hockey and water polo.
In a scene that really belongs in a broad comedy thirty years earlier, or, better yet, not at all, ever, a woman in an elevator sees Chester and Julie together and assumes they’re a couple and, in an ostentatious act of proto-performative “wokeness”, she tells them how beautiful and righteous interracial relationships are and that she hopes they have lots of beautiful babies together.
The humor, I suppose, is supposed to come from how offended they are at the idea they're romantically involved but Dangerfield and Harry overplay the disgust to the point where they look like they’re on the verge of projectile vomiting over the thought of making love. In the long, eye-bulging history of Dangerfield eye-bulging, he's never bulged his eyes with such visceral horror and disgust over what, that someone thought he was having sex with Jackee? She’s a beautiful woman. Why would he be repulsed at someone thinking he was in a sexual relationship with a gorgeous, much younger black diva? Jackee’s mortification is a lot more justified, story-wise, if every bit as cartoonishly over-played, but then that’s the level at which this whole silly trifle operates.
Ladybugs is downright The Jetsons-like in its realism concerning the business world. Like poor, emasculated cuck George Jetson, Chester’s entire business future seems to hinge on how his obnoxious, impossible to please boss feels he’s doing at any given time. If the Ladybugs are doing well, then Chester’s future with “the company” is so dazzlingly bright it necessitates the use of protective eyewear. If they're down by a goal, however, then poor Chester is in danger of receiving third prize in the Glengarry Glen Ross sales contest.
Tom Parks’ generic performance as Dave, the rich guy who pushes our hero around made me appreciate anew the beauty and genius of Ted Knight in Caddyshack. Ladybugs desperately needs not just a strong comic foil for Dangerfield to push up against, a la Knight, but tension in general.
Parks is colorless and paper-thin, a bland caricature of a snotty rich guy with a foxy trophy wife (do Dangerfield’s eyes bug out with lust when he ogles her behind? They do, dear reader. They do) who drinks white wine at his daughter’s soccer game but otherwise doesn’t do a goddamn thing half-interesting the rest of the film.
Ladybugs makes a series of bizarre decisions, as evidenced by the repellent over-sexualization of Shaw’s character. Ladybugs is an archetypal slobs versus snobs comedy so it seems weird, if I suppose narratively essential to make its juvenile lead a cold, abrasive jock whose two main passions in life are sports and chasing broads.
Chester somehow convinces his surly soon-to-be-stepson to play as “Martha.” He just slaps a blonde Prince Valiant wig on the little jerk’s head and gives him a girl’s name and boom, before you know it, the Ladybugs are a force to be reckoned with. Is Chester gonna get the big promotion? Will the team find out that the gruff, masculine stranger who barks out orders like a drill sergeant on the field and slap girls asses while saying “You’re hot stuff” is in fact a boy and not the girl he is barely pretending to be? Will the filmmakers find an excuse to put Rodney in a dress? Will, for the love of God Rodney and Jackee duet on "Great Balls of Fire", performed partially onscreen?
The answers to all these questions is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Ladybugs came out at a weird, transitional time for Rodney. The Golden Days were most assuredly over. The time when his starring presence was enough for a theatrical release were similarly drawing unhappily to a close.
The cheap, shoddy subsequent vehicles, post 1997’s Meet Wally Sparks (to which a nation of moviegoers replied, ‘Thanks, but no”) would skip theaters entirely en route to near-total obscurity, also known as being featured extensively on Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. Yet with Ladybugs Rodney was still trying to make dodgy c-list studio schlock work through sheer force of magnetism.
Unfortunately, Ladybugs does not understand what makes Rodney work. If it did, it wouldn’t have him spend much of the film playing sidekick to Brandis’ surly cross-dressing stud on the prowl. Nor would it have Chester, in his unlikely role as a mentor to emotionally volatile young women, tell a girl who becomes beautiful once she takes off glasses, “If I was younger I would definitely ask you out on a date!” and when he mopily guesses that even then she wouldn’t go out with him, have her chirp, “Yes I would, Coach Chester! “ Heck, while I’m at it, they probably wouldn’t have given the coach in a movie about a dude who has a boy dress up like a girl to compete in youth soccer for young girls for the sake of a promotion a first name that rhymes with “convicted child molester.”
You know, now that I think about it, Ladybugs is kind of a fucked up movie. It’s PG-13 apparently because that’s the age of the subjects of a lot of its sex jokes. It panders shamelessly to the basest instincts of the lowest common denominator yet still feels incredibly off.
This bugged me far more than it should have, but in order for Ladybugs to work, our hero’s miserable boss needs a comeuppance. Chester needs to tell him off, or punch him in the face, or sneak into his home under cover of night and slit his throat or take his family hostage.
Yet Ladybugs ends with Chester and Dave working tightly together and Dave’s faith in his employee making that grateful employee’s dream come true.
NO! NO! NO!
You do not end a slobs versus snobs comedy with the slobs and snobs thick as thieves, talking about their bright future together. There’s a reason it’s called slobs versus snobs and not slobs and their very good friends and supporters the snobs. It’s cause there’s supposed to be in perpetual conflict, particularly when the snob is as sub-par as he is here.
To make things even more egregiously wrong, the film ends with Rodney breaking the fourth wall to finally tell us “I finally got some respect.”
NO! NO! NO! (Again)
Rodney does not get respect. That’s the first rule of Rodney. So while I enjoyed Ladybugs on a camp and nostalgic level, as a Rodney vehicle it is impossible to respect in anything but an ironic sense.
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