Drop Dead Fred is a 1991 British-American black comedy fantasy film directed by Ate de Jong, produced by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and Working Title Films and released and distributed by New Line Cinema. The film was promoted as a lighthearted children's film, but there are notable adult themes and gags, and some elements of black comedy, emotional abuse, mental illness, bizarre visual and make-up effects, and profanity.
Rik Mayall starred as the title character: a happy, anarchic, and mischievous imaginary friend of a young girl named Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) and nemesis of her overbearing mother, Polly (Marsha Mason). He causes chaos around the home and neighborhood, but nobody can see him except her. When she grows up and has an emotional crisis, he returns to "cheer her up" in his own unique way, causing more chaos than ever before. The supporting cast included Carrie Fisher, Ron Eldard, Tim Matheson, and Bridget Fonda.
Elizabeth Cronin is an unassertive and repressed woman, domineered by her controlling mother, Polly. While taking her lunch break from work, she visits her husband, Charles, from whom she is separated, hoping to sort out their problems. He reasserts his desire for a divorce and says that he is in love with another woman named Annabella. While she is at the public phone, a man walking down the street breaks into her car to steal her purse. Then her car is stolen as well. Forced to run back to work (at the courthouse), she arrives late and loses her job. While leaving the courthouse she runs into an old friend, Mickey, who brings up childhood memories they shared, which includes memories of Elizabeth's childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred. Mickey explains how only Elizabeth could see Drop Dead Fred, and everybody else thought she was crazy.
Since losing her job Elizabeth moves back into her mother's home. While rummaging through past belongings in her childhood bedroom closet, Elizabeth finds a taped-shut jack-in-the-box. She places the box by the window and gets into bed. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that while he caused havoc for her, he also gave her happiness and a release from her oppressive mother. Elizabeth wakes up to find the jack-in-the-box slowly playing music. She removes the tape and the box continues to play itself, faster and faster, until Drop Dead Fred flies out of the box, finally freed after all these years. He agrees to help her become happy again, which she believes will only happen when she wins back Charles. However, his childish antics do more harm than good. He sinks Janie's boat, causes havoc at a restaurant, and even makes Lizzie attack a person playing a violin in a shopping mall.
Worried by Elizabeth's recent strange behavior, Polly brings her to a (children's) psychologist. In the waiting room, Fred is seen meeting up with the imaginary friends of other patients, who are all children. The doctor prescribes medication to rid her of him, whom he and Polly believe is a figment of her imagination. She also changes her appearance and wardrobe. Charles now wants her back and she is overjoyed, until Fred discovers he is still cheating on her with Annabella. Heartbroken, she tells Fred that she cannot leave Charles, because she is scared of being alone. They escape to a dream sequence in which she is finally able to reject him, stand up to Polly, and declare she is no longer afraid of her. She frees her imprisoned childhood self. Fred tells her that she no longer needs him, so they kiss and he disappears into her eternal subconscious.
Upon awakening from the dream, Elizabeth dumps Charles and asserts herself to Polly, who blames her for her father leaving home. Before leaving, she reconciles with Polly, and encourages her to find a friend to escape her own loneliness. She goes to her friend Mickey's house, and on meeting, they both express interest in becoming more than just friends. After his daughter, Natalie, comes up to them and blames Fred for mischief that has just prompted her nanny to quit, Elizabeth realizes that he is now with Natalie. She can no longer see him, but he is now leading another, and smiles contentedly.Rik Mayall as "Drop Dead Fred"
Phoebe Cates as Elizabeth Cronin
Ashley Peldon as Young Elizabeth
Marsha Mason as Polly Cronin
Ron Eldard as Mickey Bunce
Carrie Fisher as Janie
Tim Matheson as Charles
Daniel Gerroll as Nigel Cronin
Keith Charles as Murray
Bridget Fonda as Annabella
Eleanor Mondale as Attractive customer
Bob Reid as Judge Dubben
The film, produced on a budget of just under $6.8 millions, was released theatrically in North America on April 19, 1991, grossing $3,625,648 on its opening weekend, and $13,878,334 over its entire theatrical run.
Drop Dead Fred was critically panned upon release. Leonard Maltin stated that "Phoebe Cates' appealing performance can't salvage this putrid mess...recommended only for people who think nose-picking is funny." Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 9% based on 34 reviews. Gene Siskel named Drop Dead Fred as the worst film of 1991. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Margaret Lyons asked, "Is it supposed to be hilarious, or a really, really depressing story about the long-term effects of emotional abuse?"
Writing for Mystical Movie Guide, Carl J. Schroeder wrote, "The imaginary friend is cavortingly rude for a reason; he served to push the girlchild to do mischief for attention and as a cry for help. Now grown up, the woman has forgotten and is about to lose her soul, so events call for some kind of literal return of her demon to force the exposure of her pain. This psychic crisis is poignantly realistic... The creature who is visible only to the woman is like a poltergeist energy of her repressed self, a problematic ego container into which her powers of assertion and creativity were poured and stored. The movie's resolution is startlingly beautiful."