Neither fish nor fowl, Ladybugs (1992) is a rudderless, generally unfunny comedy that doesn't know what it wants to be. A slight variation on The Bad News Bears (1976) that casts Rodney Dangerfield as the unlikely coach of a girls soccer team, it's neither the raunchy, politically incorrect but funny comedy the Walter Matthau picture was, nor is it the all-encompassing family film it at other times seems to want to be. Indeed, these forces are at odds with one another throughout the picture, resulting in some alarmingly tasteless humor. It's not every family film that can boast incest jokes.
Ladybugs was not a success and pretty much ended Dangerfield's brief career as a film star, though several barely-released titles would eventually follow. Its timing on Blu-ray is peculiar, unless somebody at Paramount or Lionsgate thought this would make a swell tie-in with World Cup Soccer. The transfer is adequate and there are no extra features.
Chester (Dangerfield) needs a raise in order to marry his single mom girlfriend, Bess (Ilene Graff), who lives in the Denver, Colorado suburbs with her teenage son, Matthew (Jonathan Brandis). Sucking up to his rich, boorish boss (Tom Parks, uncharismatic), Chester agrees to coach the girls soccer team the company sponsors, the Ladybugs, and on which the boss's daughter, Kimberly (Vinessa Shaw), plays.
Needless to say, Chester knows nothing about the sport and despite the help of coworker Julie (Jackée Harry, billed here as "Jackée"), their first game is an unmitigated disaster. But then Chester comes up with an idea; he convinces soccer ace Matthew to join the team as "Martha," which unbelievably he agrees to with minimal coaxing because, as luck would have it, he has a crush on Kimberly.
There are so many similarities between this and The Bad News Bears it's surprising a lawsuit didn't result. In both films a crude and uncultured older man coaches the team, and he later introduces a ringer whose gender is the opposite of his/her teammates. The ringer turns the team's fortunes around but then suddenly drops out before the big championship game. And in both films the opposing team's coach is a humorless martinet type.
In The Bad News Bears, most of the humor stems from the fact that its Little League players are unlovable, inept, streetwise and foul-mouthed kids, the kind that exist in real-life but which up to that point rarely appeared in movies or on TV, and never en masse. In Ladybugs the girls make no impression of any kind; they're just stock characters (shy girl, dreamy-eyed girl, spoiled girl, etc.).
Instead, the humor is all over the place. Beyond the tepid Bad News Bears shtick, Dangerfield does his trademark sweaty strip club comic act, machine-gunning corny but well-delivered one-liners with bugged-out eyes and a voice that sounds like a bathtub drain. Part of Dangerfield's persona was his nervous energy; his almost constant gesticulating (Bobblehead-like perpetual motion, loosening his tie, etc.) worked in stand-up but non-stop in a 90-minute movie almost suggests palsy.
Where Dangerfield's persona played wonderfully in small doses and/or in the right vehicle, such as his star-making turn in Caddyshack (1980), entire films built around this character struggled to find an appropriate sensibility. In this he's kind of like W.C. Fields's put-upon employee in (far superior) movies such as The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1933), but there is no consistency in the writing. The film is alternately sentimental, joke-driven, crude, slapsticky, and at times even becomes a teen romance.
Dangerfield was a late-bloomer. The hard-working comedian had been around since the '60s but didn't find mainstream success until Caddyshack, and by the time he made Ladybugs he was 70 years old. (Ilene Graff, playing his girlfriend, was 43.) He's got energy to spare, but early middle age he's not.
By far the strangest thing about Ladybugs is its wildly misplaced sexual humor. On one hand there's little in the way of Some Like It Hot-type gender confusion; indeed, for most of the film Brandis wears a wig but otherwise acts and talks like a teenage boy. (He adopts a falsetto in one scene, but talks normally for the rest of the movie.) Rather, several times in the film are double-entendres suggesting sexual relations between Matthew/Martha and Chester, his would-be stepfather. Complaining to a bartender about his girlfriend troubles, Chester explains, "I dressed her son up like a girl and talked him into playing with me!"
The bartender, incidentally, is played by Chuck McCann, the star of Dangerfield's first film, the highly imaginative if not entirely successful The Projectionist (1971), in which Dangerfield had the mostly straight role McCann's boss, a menacing movie theater manager.
Ladybugs was directed by Sidney J. Furie, whose eclectic credits include Hammer-style horror films, lively Cliff Richard musicals, biopics good and bad (Lady Sings the Blues, Gable and Lombard), one of the best-ever spy films (The Ipcress File), a vastly underrated Vietnam War drama (The Boys in Company C), and the last of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Since about 1980 he's done workmanlike jobs on lesser films (e.g., The Taking of Beverly Hills) and also directed My 5 Wives (2002) featuring that unmissable triumvirate of Dangerfield, Andrew Dice Clay, and John Byner.
Video & Audio
The transfer, presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, looks okay. Visually the movie is bright and sunny if unremarkable, and that pretty much describes the 1080p transfer, too. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio (adapted from the original Dolby Stereo mix) falls into the same category, coming alive only during the occasional spurt of pop music underscoring, which includes a cover of "Great Balls of Fire" performed by Dangerfield and "Jackée." Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included. The disc is Region "A" encoded and there are no Extra Features.
I'd argue Ladybugs lacks the courage of its convictions if it had any convictions to begin with. Its general blandness interrupted only by some out of place sexual innuendo, Ladybugs is a "Skip It."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.