American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
I felt a little glow as the opening titles rolled up for "Clifford": Martin Short...Charles Grodin...Mary Steenburgen...Dabney Coleman. Funny people. Even the technical credits were promising. John A. Alonzo, great cameraman; Pembroke Herring, skilled editor. I settled in for some laughs. And waited. And waited. In a screening of some 150 people, two people laughed, once apiece. The other some 148 did not laugh at all. One of the laughers was me; I liked a moment in a showdown scene between Short and Grodin. The other person laughed right after I did, maybe because he agreed, or maybe because my laugh is darn infectious.
A movie like this is a deep mystery. It asks the question: What went wrong? "Clifford" is not bad on the acting, directing or even writing levels. It fails on a deeper level still, the level of the underlying conception. Something about the material itself is profoundly not funny. Irredeemably not funny, so that it doesn't matter what the actors do, because they are in a movie that should never have been made.
The story opens in the year 2050, when a kindly old priest is trying to reason with a rebellious kid in a home for troubled kids. The priest (Short) tells the kid that he was once a troubled kid, himself. That sets up three flashbacks that make up most of the movie. To deal with the 2050 scenes right up front: They are completely unnecessary. Their only apparent function is to show Martin Short made up as an old man.
Now. Back to the main story, which takes place in the present. Martin Short stars as little Clifford, a brat, about 10 years old, I guess. Short plays him with no makeup other than a wig and little boy's suits, and the camera angles are selected to make him look a foot shorter than the other actors. Clifford is a little boy from hell, a sneaky practical joker, spoiled, obnoxious. We meet him with his parents on a flight to Hawaii. He wants the plane to land in Los Angeles so he can visit the Dinosaur Park amusement park.