Since 1993 was a year where two movies for kids indulged their baseball fantasies, it’s appropriate that 1994 – the year the Major League Baseball season was cancelled when millionaire players and owners couldn’t come to terms – offered children a double feature about the difficulties of having a ton of money. Also appropriately, the films play like the payouts of contract obligations, dutifully providing youngsters with silly grownups getting outsmarted and dialog that can’t say “ass” but includes “butt” as many times as possible. The previous year’s Rookie of the Year and The Sandlot were a fun time at the movies with young characters and situations for kids to recognize and identify with. 1994’s Richie Rich and Blank Check were made by inattentive uncles forced to babysit for 95 minutes.
The 90s, for those who missed it, was the spoiled brat offspring of the Me Decade. In those years, Gordon Gecko posited that Greed is Good and the 90s absorbed the lesson and normalized excess. The economy was booming, shopping malls ruled the suburbs and Coke even learned how to sell people water. The notion of using wealth and power to get the inside track on obtaining more of the same wasn’t a new one, but the idea was now becoming institutionalized.
Richie Rich has a genial worship of wealth. Based on the long-running money fetish magazine for kids, the movie begins with the birth of young Richie to his doting billionaire parents (Edward Herrmann and Christine Ebersole). “Can you say Wallstreet?” the senior Rich coos to his newborn in one of a handful of punchlines that play quite differently a quarter century later (another is a gasp that the working-class children “Probably haven’t even been vaccinated!”).
Soon we’re introduced to young Master Richie (Macaulay Culkin) and his comically oversized prosperity. He has a literal silver spoon and matching pacifier. He gets batting tips from Reggie Jackson. He has a supermodel aerobics instructor to ogle (worse than it sounds). He has a damn McDonalds in his house. Money motivates sight gags and parodies of fabulous excess… and only-child loneliness. For even though Richie Rich has everything material, the Poor Little Rich Boy™ is missing one crucial thing: friends that don’t suck, i.e. poor friends. He can only relate to his stiff butler Cadbury in small doses because Cadbury belongs to a species not native to America, loyal servants who aren’t toadies or privately plotting usurpation. Richie’s affluent classmates are disgusting white-collar criminals in the making. One berates a servant who brings him the wrong drink during fencing practice and Richie punishes the boy by taking a poke at his hindquarters with a rapier (not as bad as it sounds).
See, the Riches are the benevolent billionaires. The elder Rich buys a factory and operates it at a loss because closing it would mean having to lay people off. He’s never fired anyone in his life he declares proudly. This is a profoundly stupid brag for any person in business and a policy that has certainly done disservice to the company, to any unqualified employees not fired, and to the co-workers of the unfired persons who have to put up with whatever incompetent and miserable people have slipped through the company’s hiring process.
Lawrence Van Dough (John Larroquette) is one of those people. He’s immediately identified as our villain because he berates and fires his limo driver for parking his door next to a puddle. He has designs on taking over Rich Enterprises because, despite the fact that no member of the Rich family actually likes or trusts him, he stands next in line in the event of their demise. This leads Van Dough to attempt an uncomfortable amount of murder in a children’s movie. Wisely, the film graduates young viewers through escalating stages of assassination. Van Dough takes down Mr. and Mrs. Rich’s plane with a bomb which is cartoony enough not to frighten. Hiring an inside guy to hang Cadbury in prison and make it look like a suicide is step two, and soon kids are ready to witness Laroquette pump several bullets into Richie Rich’s chest at point blank range. Richie is saved by his bullet-proof tailored suit, but it’s the thought that counts.
Van Dough can’t stand Richie because the kid is just like his father, only more so, like when Richie convinces the board to cut their own salaries rather than fire employees at the underperforming factory. In honor of the 90s, the last decade when you could talk about public figures without appending a political party affiliation behind their name, I’m attempting to keep this apolitical. But the Riches really are the Reaganite ideal billionaire, looking after the little guy at least as often as they tweak their self-portraits carved into the mountain overlooking the town.
If you prefer the rich portrayed as humanoid flesh suits surrounding void spaces where souls normally should reside, then Blank Check is the movie for you. Remember how all the bad guys could be identified in Richie Rich because they were mean to the people working for them? In Blank Check being an asshole is the default behavior expected of anybody with money, anybody pretending to have money, or anybody with vague prospects of getting money. Leona Helmsley would fit right into this movie if it didn’t mean giving a second sizable speaking role to a woman.
To summarize quickly – because I spent a good chunk of my week considering this movie and there’s no reason we should both suffer – Blank Check is the story of Preston Waters (Brian Bonsall), a 12-year-old kid who is rudely kicked out of his room by his older brothers when they need a home office for their new business and state-of-the-art Macintosh computer. Preston is understandably miffed and complies a birthday wishlist where he asks for (1) his two brothers to be “knocked off,” (2) his own house, (3) a girlfriend, and (4) the biggest birthday party ever. When ruthless gangster Quigley (Miguel Ferrer) backs into Preston’s bike and hurriedly hands him a blank check for the damages, the lad uses the opportunity and the Macintosh to fill in a kingly sum of one million dollars. He’s given the money when the gangster’s crooked banker mistakes Preston for a go-between in their laundering scheme.
Under the guise of an unseen benefactor named “Mr. Macintosh,” Preston quickly spends the money on everything on his list minus the contract killing of his brothers plus a castle which he fills with VR video games, trash cans of ice cream, go-carts, a batting cage, the latest in cassette players, and all sorts of other crap. Within 24 hours he’s made these purchases and stands on a parapet, belittling an army of delivery drivers through a bullhorn.
Blank Check is one of two produced films written by Blake Snyder (the other is Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). Snyder wrote a popular screenwriting guide called Save the Cat! that broke down the beats of popular Hollywood movies into a plug-and-play formula. The recipe did produce a ruthlessly efficient product here: a film with everything unnecessary boiled away including logic and empathy. But tellingly, though the title of the book comes from Snyder’s insistence that every movie’s protagonist must gain the audience’s sympathy through some action at the beginning of the movie (ala Ripley saving the cat in Alien) there’s no clear save-the-cat moment for Preston. Is it when he mopes through an amusement park because he doesn’t have enough money for the big rides? When he gets a computer to repeat the words “butt to face” endlessly? When he commits felonious check fraud? I see no redeemable character traits, only a movie that begins with an escaped criminal kissing his money and then has its supposed hero do the exact same thing at the “Break Into Two.”
Like Richie Rich, Preston suffers from a lack of close friends. Blank Check’s answer to the stately Cadbury is a dopey limo driver named Henry hired by Preston for two straight days of excessive purchasing montages. Henry’s only vaguely curious as to how the unseen Macintosh is able to pay him so much so often and in cash. He’s either a greedy simpleton or secretly another child crossed over from a different fantasy movie where he swapped bodies with the poor man’s John Candy. As for number three on the wishlist (girlfriend) Preston inexplicably attracts the attentions of Shay (Karen Duffy) who works at the bank but is secretly an FBI agent tracking the money. On the way to being labelled a gold digger by teenagers and performing a romantic kiss with a preteen, Duffy gets leered at by nearly every other male character of every age. Lars von Trier gives actresses better roles.
After six days Quigley and his cohorts finally track Preston to his castle, but it’s too late. He’s blown the rest of the cash on wishlist item 4 (big birthday party) and everybody has left upon learning there’s no more money. There’s some discussion of a plan to get Mactintosh elected mayor(?!?) with only one loose end – Preston (and Macintosh’s complete lack of identifying documents or corporeal presence). Preston escapes their clutches and kills each of his assailants using the toys established in those montages that seemed so superfluous at the time. Everything pays off in Snyder’s hermetic scripting – the virtual reality helmet, the batting cage, the racecar, Preston’s inability to tell right from wrong – it all culminates in three corpses on a property purchased under an untraceable pseudonym.
Oh, wait, the bad guys are alive and show up in time to take the rap for Macintosh and get lead away in handcuffs (I assume they’ll serve their sentences before the cops think to verify any identities). Preston goes home where the members of his family – including his two brothers who have never treated him better than dogshit for which reason Preston has never recanted his number one wish for them to die – have a birthday cake for him. Make a wish, they implore. “What could I possibly wish for,” Preston asks, “when I have everything I could want right here?”
In the late 1960s well-meaning behavior scientists conducted radical experiments in close-proximity therapy sessions with serial killers involving LSD. The theory held that with intense sessions of forced interaction day after day for months on end psychopaths could be taught empathy and function in society again. After several breakthroughs and tearful connections, the inmates appeared to improve and many were paroled. The recidivism rate was 80 percent. One of them killed a man within the first hour of his day pass. It turns out the program didn’t induce empathy, it taught the psychopaths how to better imitate normal human behavior so they could be turned loose.
I don’t relate this story just because watching Blank Check made me crave each element (drugs, therapy, death). I bring this up because after studying the results, I now believe Save the Cat! is the screenwriting equivalent to that psychopath finishing school, teaching ideas without humanity how to present like meaningful ones, so something as nakedly hedonistic as Blank Check could appear like a family values movie, at least to whatever nakedly hedonistic 90s Disney executives wrote a check out to this disgusting twerp of a movie.
Blank Check is a harbinger of the empty underpinnings of the 90s economy that would lead to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. “Mr. Macintosh” comes to town, flashes some cash, and is offered all manner of goods and services on faith that he has plenty more where it came from. No doubt the mailbox in front of the castle is stuffed with pre-approved credit card offers. When the debts are called, everybody leaves the party. Not shown, naturally, is whatever poor bastards are left to clean up the giant mess left behind.
If only the 90s could have avoided the hollow blank checks and kept up the self-delusion that held together the proud Rich tradition. In the end, Richie Rich is hoisted on the shoulders of the friends he gained through expensive gifts after a homerun (gained through expensive batting lessons). “Now our son really is the richest boy in the world,” beams Mr. Rich. “Yes,” says his wife. Then, either because this is too subtle or because she’s trying to convince herself, adds “He has friends.”
– I forgot how annoying the full orchestra scores for 90s kids movies were.
– No threats of violence in either movie makes the viewer as uneasy as Culkin himself whose disaffected performance in pristine knit preppie clothes feels like it’s on the edge of swerving into Funny Games.
– Tone Loc, as a laidback henchman, gets out the single worthy joke in Blank Check when he walks up to Duffy’s character and compliments her necklace before remarking “It’d be a shame if something happened to it.” This offhanded threat to burn down a piece of jewelry epitomizes the excessive and nonsensical plans of all the antagonists.
– Richie Rich got a couple guffaws out of me and one genuine laugh when Richie’s classmate, caught faxing notes behind his stately oak school desk, feeds the evidence through a shredder in full view of the teacher. It could be commenting on the shameless way the business class ignores regulation, but either way I’m a sucker for office supply humor.