Imagine a rusty old Buick, sitting in a junk yard. Next, picture it slipping into neutral, and its old wheels creaking forward. The car lurches, helplessly and aimlessly, until it thunks into a nearby tree. There it settles, destined to spend an eternity as a moldering pile of uselessness. Now, take that pitiful momentum and turn it into a movie, and you have Man of the House. This is 96 minutes of limp, lifeless dreck, in desperate need of a compactor to crunch it down into a tidy cube of garbage. Too bad we don’t have Lemon Laws for movies.
The plot is predictable assault of clichés. Ben (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is a precocious tween kid. He serves as our narrator, allowing the lazy screenwriters to shovel gobs of stinky exposition, like horseshit out of a stable. When Ben’s dad bails on his family, it falls on Sandy (Farrah Fawcett) to raise her son alone. This brings mother and son into a tight bond–two against the world. Sure, Sandy goes on a few dates, but all it takes is a thumbs-down from Ben, and every doofus boyfriend gets the heave.
Enter Jack Sturges (Chevy Chase). He’s a successful, clean-cut lawyer. He stands up to sleazy mob bosses. Worst of all, he’s really a nice guy. For the first time, Ben’s default disapproval isn’t enough to toss Jack to the curb. When Sandy invites Jack to move in, Ben can’t hide his contempt.
It’s here the movie veers into John Hughes territory. Ben goes into rascally Culkin Mode, as he attempts to make every minute of Jack’s life as miserable as possible. Naturally, this backfires on two fronts: Sandy digs in to make the relationship work, and Jack ups his game to win over Ben.
Of course, this leads Jack and Ben into the Indian Guides, a YMCA program with a Boy Scouts feel to it. (It also plays off racist stereotypes of Native Americans that dates the film in an ugly way.) What follows is a series of sitcom shenanigans, with low-grade misunderstandings, cheap laughs, and deep yawns, as Jack’s prosecution of mafia tough guys invades his private life.
There’s just not a lot of meat on this bone. Most of House feels built out of a screenwriting kit, and astute moviegoers will spot every story turn a mile away. It’s no surprise that this was a moderate success at the box office–JTT was a hot item, after all–but it quickly fell deep into the drugstore dollar bin.
Most of the players work down to the material. Chase, on the edge of a steep career precipice, phones in his performance to an alarming degree. That goes ditto for Fawcett, who sleepwalks through what could have been a touching role. George Wendt tries to acquit himself as the disposable comic relief, but even ol’ Normy can’t lift this thing up from the bog. Only an energetic Thomas manages to emerge unscathed.
In the end, we’re left with the mangled wreckage of a movie. Like that imaginary Buick, Man of the House doesn’t so much end as coast to a creaky stop. And there it will sit–a forgotten artifact of a long-ago era. Unfortunately, that’s all it ever could’ve been.
96 min. PG. Disney+.