Dedicated to Sarah Marshall
In a long and still-developing career full of surprises, Arnold Schwarzenegger made three great comedies whose rightful place in the American cinematic canon have still yet to be acknowledged. Until today.
There are plenty of unintentionally funny Schwarzenegger moments – comparing lifting weights to orgasm in the star-making documentary Pumping Iron and the leather jockstrap that pulls focus throughout Conan the Barbarian. Even the Terminator movies have their moments, like before he gets the hang of slang and says “Chill out, dickwad.” (Incidentally – let’s bring dickwad back). Then there’s Jingle All the Way, a 1996 Christmas movie which is technically a comedy but is not funny, despite its prescient commentary on maniacal Christmas shopping (Beanie Babies peaked in 1995, Furby in ’98), although it is worth watching to see Phil Hartman play a creepy neighbour. The Last Action Hero from 1993 is funny, but it’s also primarily a kids’ action movie and it’s so goofily meta, it deserves its own essay.
The three Great Schwarzenegger Comedies are: Twins, Kindergarten Cop and the unexpectedly ahead of its time, Junior.
The three Great Schwarzenegger Comedies all have something in common, besides the obvious: they were all directed by Ivan Reitman. He was the Hollywood visionary who really knew how to bring out Schwarzenegger’s comic potential. (His other major stroke of casting genius was his handling of the first Ghostbusters. The movie was originally conceived as a vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but Belushi’s premature, though perhaps not totally unexpected death forced a rejigging of the script. Belushi wasn’t cut but actually recast – as Slimer.)
There are a few other things they all have in common. They all have madcap plotlines that are just crazy enough to work. They all rely on visual humour from the physical juxtaposition of the massive Schwarzenegger and tiny people – DeVito, kindergarteners. Most importantly, and this is Reitman’s real innovation, they all work by casting Schwarzenegger in a role contrary to our image of him. In comedies, we see Schwarzenegger’s tender side. This last criterion is the main reason Jingle All the Way is unsuccessful. Schwarzenegger plays a dickwad.
Of the three Great Schwarzenegger Comedies, Kindergarten Cop is probably the most popular today, at least among old millennials such as myself. It’s highly quotable, there’s a ferret, and Schwarzenegger dresses like a cowboy to sing “Old Macdonald,” accompanying himself on a ukulele which looks extra teeny in his hands. But the other two, both of which boil down to Schwarzenegger and DeVito against the world, are even better. And Junior, I’m here to tell you, may just be the most underrated comedy of the 1990s.
If it’s not yet clear, I am completely sincere. In this way I differ from Sandy Smith, the Scottish multi-media artist whose 2007 essay “Junior: A monument in film making history” and attendant essay contest was meant to be a send-up of academic pomposity. I’m all for tearing down the ivy towers, but I decry such a cynical approach. Michael J. Nelson, of Mystery Science Theater, named it the second-worst comedy of all time, after Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky. Fuck outta here, Nelson. I’m here to tell you that Junior is an earnest and sweet movie which makes amazingly progressive statements on parenting. In the 25 years since it came out, discourse around gender identity has made one giant leap for personkind. Although the basic premise hinges on a male-female binary, Junior ends up depicting reproductive technologies and gender-neutral parenting roles in a way that feels respectful and loving even by our occasionally hysterical 2019 standards. And it’s funny as fuck.
Let me back it up, for those of you who need a refresher. Schwarzenegger plays Dr. Alex Hesse, a university scientist of some kind, I dunno exactly but there’s pregnant chimps in his lab. DeVito is Dr. Larry Arbogast, a private practice OBGYN. The two have teamed up to develop Expectane, a drug that reduces the risk of miscarriage. But when they lose FDA approval and, consequently, university funding, the research must come to an end. Or must it? They decide to secretly implant a fertilised egg into Schwarzenegger’s stomach so that he can take the Expectane and prove it safe for human use. The cast is rounded out by Frank Langella as a jerk dean, Pamela Reed as Larry’s pregnant-by-someone-else ex-wife (Reitman also gets her pregnant in Kindergarten Cop), and, spectacularly, Emma Thompson as Dr. Diana Reddin, a fellow scientist. Judy Collins, Aida Turturro and Christopher Meloni with gross long hair all show up too.
The fact that Junior is not wildly offensive by today’s standards is already something of a miracle. It’s saved by two things. First, Schwarzenegger’s performance is so thoroughly sweet and tender. He doesn’t play a woman or, except for a brief sequence when he’s in hiding, a man pretending to be a woman. He plays someone reborn by the love he experiences as he goes through a pregnancy. Second, and related to the first, the movie makes an argument about what it means to be a functional family, which boils down to: just love the heck out of your kid, whoever you and/or your partner may be.
Schwarzenegger is not the first pregnant man on film. There’s the fantastic Jacques Demy movie A Slightly Pregnant Man starring a French-speaking Marcello Mastroianni and his then-wife Catherine Deneuve. Mastroianni’s charisma in this role works just like Schwarzenegger’s, and his perceived hyper-masculinity intensifies the comedic premise. I mean, who’s more seductive than, (she whispered breathily) Marcello? There’s also a movie I haven’t seen but am now very intrigued by – Rabbit Test directed by and starring Joan Rivers and featuring Billy Crystal in his film debut.
Schwarzenegger’s non-Schwarzeneggery character in Junior is an acute case. He’s not tough and, though it looks the same, there are no verbal references to his physique. He has no game with the ladies and he’s unpopular with his colleagues. He’s a real Charlie Brown of a Schwarzenegger. Part of what happens when he becomes pregnant is an overall softening of his character. He gets, as they say, in touch with his feelings, especially how lonely he was. This occurs through his growing emotional attachment to the baby inside him. It began as a science experiment meant to be terminated as soon as the necessary results are in but after a few weeks, Schwarzenegger stops thinking of it as research. He starts thinking, and feeling, that this is his baby. The uncontrollable physical transformation of his body is also very unSchwarzeneggery.
The subtlety of Schwarzenegger’s performance is astonishing. The joy in his eyes when he sees the first sonogram, the yearning for reassurance from DeVito who becomes his partner in the pregnancy, his delighted smile when he finds two more chicken wings hiding in the corner of a feast he and Reed share: home-made spaghetti, Chinese take-out, ice cream, chips and, wink wink!, pickles. But Schwarzenegger’s pregnancy is closeted, hidden under oversized sweatshirts and improvised explanations. Still, he’s thrilled at a conference dinner when the mean dean tells him he’s looking strangely radiant.
He’s really marvellous in the scenes where he can be openly pregnant, sharing the screen with women who are also pregnant. When they are at risk of being exposed, DeVito secretes him at Casita Madres, which I guess is a kind of wellness spa for pregnant white ladies run by Judy Collins. It’s like if The Red Tent were glamping. They put him in a wig and a dress, but they don’t really go for drag. Rather than attempt to disguise his face with makeup, Schwarzenegger explains during intake:
“When l was a sportswoman in the East German Olympic track-and-field team they dispensed anabolic steroids as freely as here in America they dole out Gatorade. […] Nothing was mentioned of the side effects that are now [he holds his gargantuan hands up to his big boxy face] so obviously, painfully apparent.”
At Casita Madres, Schwarzenegger gets his first taste of freedom. He speaks openly about his fears of not being a “natural born mother” and is met with sympathy. We see him exercise for the first time in this film, pushing himself to do stretches and calisthenics with the others. He bonds with them, expressing his own feelings of love and letting in theirs. In his masculine identity he was lonely, but among these gals, he finds fellowship. The same thing was true in the waiting room at DeVito’s clinic. When they enter together, with Schwarzenegger in a mood, DeVito explains to his other patients that he’s suffering a psychiatric condition, “auto-physiological suggestion.” The women gather around him to politely and caringly ask, How far along are you? Is it your first? Have you thought of any names?
There is, however, one woman who is aloof from this organic sisterhood – Emma Thompson. She plays a classic absent-minded professor, a character-type usually reserved for men. Thompson misreads social cues. She flings teabags recklessly from her mug, leaving her lab assistants to catch them and deposit them in the trash. She hunches her shoulders and wakes up at her desk with cheese stuck to her face. She is generally unkempt, wearing threadbare sweater vests and clunky loafers. In other words, she behaves in ways that usually only men dare. What’s extraordinary is that as the film goes on and she and Schwarzenegger fall inevitably in love, she becomes more beautiful but not more feminine. She trades in her bulky sweaters for loose white button-downs and becomes a sexy academic in the mold of Indiana Jones. Oh, and her research, which seemed fairly futuristic in the mid-90s especially with the use of the word “cryogenic,” is freezing eggs.
When they’re introduced, it’s implied that both Schwarzenegger and Thompson are sexless. Schwarzenegger is lonely and unliked, and Thompson doesn’t get out much. At the conference dinner, they take the dancefloor together as Cassandra freakin Wilson croons “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” They confess to each other that they don’t know how to dance, i.e., fuck. They bond over their shared love of pigs in blankets, the party snack that better than any other represents the true nature of heterosexual sex, which, while enjoyable, is unavoidably disgusting and embarrassing.
But actually, their very first meeting is a sexual simulation with heteronormative gender roles reversed. Thompson is arriving in the lab she is unintentionally set to commandeer from Schwarzenegger, and as her equipment is being recklessly unloaded, she jumps on top of her frozen egg chamber and rides it crashing through the lab. Schwarzenegger, bracing himself for impact, gets pummelled and knocked to the ground. He opens his eyes to find himself lying on his back and Thompson on top of him. She literally busted into him with her eggs. Relieved that he allowed her to make a safe landing, Thompson delivers a series of short kisses, the kind that express more gratitude than eroticism, until Schwarzenegger shouts “Get off me!”
The egg that’s used to impregnate Schwarzenegger is Thompson’s. (Ok, I could have given you a spoiler warning, but come on, the movie’s a quarter-century old and it’s a good Schwarzenegger comedy. Who did you think the mother was, Keyser Söze?) She froze it using her own equipment, having the resources to deal with the biological anxiety many of us face. DeVito had stolen it from the lab, in a moment that evokes Marty Feldman’s selection of Abby Normal’s brain in Young Frankenstein. So Thompson is the mother of the child Schwarzenegger is carrying, and at the end of the movie, when he delivers by C-section, she introduces herself to the infant as such. But what, the movie ultimately asks, does it mean to be a mother? Does it mean something different than to be a father, or is the most important thing to just to be a loving parent?
Schwarzenegger delivers simultaneously with Pamela Reed, who over the course of the movie has of course reconciled with her ex-husband/gynecologist DeVito. With her enthusiastic consent, he tells the newborn baby, “I’m your dad. You’re my boy.” This, then, is not a biological family, but a logical one. For all its apparent reliance on gender binaries, the ethos of the movie is essentially queer.
I will say, though, even as Thompson is de-sexed and de-gendered, she has a couple moments of intuitive feminist rage. When Schwarzenegger, whom she’s started to date, comes clean with her about the purloined egg, her rebuke would make Maxine Waters proud.
“You’ve lied to me, you steal from me, you engage in an utterly immoral, selfish, arrogant stunt without any regard for my feelings whatsoever. What – What am I supposed to be, grateful? This is just…so male!”
There’s also an earlier moment, before they’ve fallen in love or acknowledged the pregnancy, when Schwarzenegger is feeling unwell and “like l lost control over my body.” Thompson delivers a classic speech, handy for whenever men act like little bitches about physical discomfort:
Schwarzenegger: I don’t like being sick. Is there anything wrong with that?
Thompson: No. It’s just that men–
Schwarzenegger: Men what?
Thompson: They’re pathetic when it comes to pain. You should try being a woman some time. It’s a nightmare. Your body goes peculiar with your period and doesn’t stop until menopause. It’s a lifetime of leaking and swelling and spotting and smears. Crippling cramps, raging hormones, yeasts! And that’s if everything’s normal.
BTW, Schwarzenegger becomes a feminist too. In his most Schwarzeneggery moment he flips the jerkface dean over a lab table to stop him from exploiting this miracle pregnancy for media exposure, he declares, “My body, my choice!”
The movie has a pretty conventional ending, familiar at least since Shakespearean comedies. The couples that should be together are together. They’re presumably married, and their kids are the same age, one year old. Schwarzenegger and Thompson have had a girl, a detail in which the father-mother now particularly delights. They name her Junior but even after the refrain of “Junior works for both,” we know they’ll probably mostly call her June. And Thompson is pregnant with Schwarzenegger’s baby.
The movie’s re-imagining of gender has mostly to do with flipping traditional binary roles, not getting rid of them altogether. But for all that, what Junior gave us, way back in 1994, was a model of gender-nonconforming pregnancy and hetero-parent families where nobody had a clear claim, or monopoly, on being either father or mother. When this experiment comes to mean more to Schwarzenegger than any professional achievement, he gives himself over to his emotion and explains to DeVito that if he carries the baby to term, it will be a miracle. The language he uses shows that his identity as a future parent has now displaced his identity as a scientist. And he promises, “I would love, protect and nurture that miracle with everything I’ve got.” What else are we ever doing when we investigate science, create art, start a family, love someone, or, the most queer and radical act of all, love our tender, unSchwarzeneggery selves?
by Abigail Weil
Abigail is this close to having a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Harvard. She’s working on a book about Jaroslav Hašek and also writes about food, theatre and other important facets of culture. Her comfort-films include The Royal Tenenbaums, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and Weekend at Bernie’s. She lives in New York with her cat Schmootzy and is wildly under-appreciated on Twitter as @AbbieWeil.
Categories: Anything and Everything
One small step for a Slavic Studies guru, one giant leap for film criticism. Cassandra FREAKIN Wilson indeed.
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Congratulations. I’ve been watching this movie since I was 3 years old. I’ve seen you more than 10000 for sure and you were the first person who translated what I always visualized in this material. Junior is a tender film, ahead of its time and that approaches in the most subtle way, naturally, non-traditional family relationships, where only love and concern for the well-being of the other prevails.