It seems so logical that you wonder why somebody didn't think of it before. No two sensibilities are more perfectly matched than those of Danny DeVito and Roald Dahl. Both are mean, rotten, scary, nasty and vicious. Perfectly matched for each other and perfect for a kid's movie!
So here's "Matilda," based on a book by Dahl and directed by and starring DeVito, which is, just as I had hoped, mean, rotten, scary, nasty and vicious. Kids will love it, little beasts that they are. And for the longest time, it's terrific.
The late Dahl, a Norwegian-English writer, was one of the world's great misanthropes. He hated everything and everybody. He wrote many of the famously chilly short stories on which the early "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" shows were based, particularly "A Leg of Lamb." He did one decent thing in his life: He cared for his wife, actress Patricia Neal, after her stroke and slowly and painfully nursed her back to health. Then he dumped her. Wonderful man.
DeVito has an equally scabrous misanthropy in him, perhaps the little man's inevitable revenge on the big world. As a director, his two good films have had mean streaks a mile wide: "Throw Momma from the Train" and "The War of the Roses." When he tried to go straight in "Hoffa," he stunk the joint out.
Both these bad boys must have had horrors of a childhood, which you see reflected in this dark work. "Matilda" is really a comedy of child abuse.
Matilda is born into a family of crass creeps. Her father (DeVito again) owns a crooked used-car lot which he uses as a front for a stolen auto-parts biz; her mother (DeVito's wife Rhea Perlman) is a semi-professional bingo player with a fake fingernail collection the size of New Jersey. They are greedy, shallow, cunning but stupid, and have extremely bad taste. "Why can't you be a good American kid," Daddy shrieks, "and watch TV like the rest of us!"
Clearly nobody affiliated with this picture ever heard of genetics: Matilda (Mara Wilson) is a perfect little English schoolchild with an IQ of 450, and what she's doing in a house in the scruffy 'burbs that looks like it was decorated by the Knights of Columbus is never explained, presumably because it can't.
But, in fact, that's the method of the picture: Its nastiness is so exaggerated, so stylized, that it is funny rather than tragic. And things get worse before they get better, when Matilda is finally shipped off to a school, run by Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). It happens to be an English school from the '30s, but that's another of the movie's little enigmas.
The movie will probably make Ferris, of whom I've never heard, a cult star: As a fascist English bull dyke who hates children ("You are so small," she sneers, "grow faster!"), loves the shotput and knee socks, she could have been invented by George Orwell in "Such, Such Were the Joys."
It's a great, operatic performance, full of dirty teeth, exercise, cold sweats and baths, and organized meanness to the defenseless, the weak and the helpless. Bad children get locked in "the chokey," a medieval Iron Maiden of a closet, or they get hurled through the air after which, by the grace of special effects, they arrive to the ground in tears but otherwise unharmed.
The only hope in this bleak world is Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), a nice teacher who has actually been cheated of home and fortune by her aunt, Miss Trunchbull. It's clear that Miss Honey would make the perfect mom for Matilda, but before that can come to pass a number of uninteresting plot problems have to be worked out.
Like all too many summer pictures, the initially small, wickedly delicious "Matilda" suffers from a case of gross giganticism; three-quarters of the way through, the movie remembers it's an American film, a big summer picture, and it squanders all that wondrous meanness, rottenness, scariness, nastiness and viciousness and replaces it with special effects crapola of no particular distinction. You know, flying carrots, that sort of thing. One endless scene of no significance follows as Miss Honey and Matilda are caught in Miss Trunchbull's home and have to sneak out. It's filmed like the sinking of a German battleship.
Worse is a climax where Matilda's telekinetic powers, recently discovered, are fully deployed against the evil Miss Trunchbull. It's like "Carrie" played for laughs, but the laughs aren't there. And we want to see Matilda with her brilliant IQ out-think Miss Trunchbull, not make bananas attack her.
Finally: Too much DeVito. He stars, he directs and he narrates. The last, although accomplished in his international accent rather than his Louis-from-Jersey one, makes hash out of the picture, for nothing other than his own vanity. Why not have a generic Englishman do the reading, to separate actor from narrator?
The best thing about "Matilda" is that, down in hell, it gives Roald Dahl something new to be grumpy about.
Starring Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson
Directed by Danny DeVito
Released by Tri-Star
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 8/02/96