Junior's mother abandoned him after he was born. He lived in 30 foster homes, and even at a Catholic orphanage.
Ben Healy (John Ritter) is a pleasant but brow-beaten yuppie working for his father, "Big Ben" (Jack Warden), a very successful tyrannical sporting goods dealer running for mayor. Ben and his social climbing wife Flo (Amy Yasbeck) have been unable to conceive, and Ben approaches an adoption agent, Igor Peabody (Gilbert Gottfried) with his dilemma, and Igor presents Ben and Flo with a cute 7-year-old boy named Junior (Michael Oliver). However, Junior is hardly a model child. Devilish and incorrigible, the child leaves a path of serious destruction in his wake, and is even pen pals with Martin Beck (Michael Richards), a notorious serial killer. The film is interspersed with an imprisoned Beck looking to escape and meet up with Junior, whom he miscontrues as a fellow criminal named "J.R."
Shortly after Ben and Flo bring Junior to their home, Big Ben visits, and is shocked that they adopted. Junior's bedroom catches fire when he shorts out the clowns in his new bedroom, and Big Ben calls him "The Devil." Junior throws the cat at Big Ben and they both fall down the stairs.
He messes up a camping trip with the neighbors by urinating on the campfire, and manipulating a practical joke played on the kids by their father. He then terrorizes his neighbors' daughter's birthday party, after Lucy, the snobby birthday girl, bans him from her magic show. Finally, Junior displays his effective but unethical method for winning in Little League, which involves hitting rival players in the crotch with a baseball bat after they bullied him. Ben is having serious doubts about Junior, and decides to take him back to the orphanage. However, upon hearing he was returned thirty times, he decides to keep him and love him, something no one has ever done. Junior accuses Ben of lying to him. Ben left the keys in the car, and Junior drives Ben's car into Big Ben's sporting goods store. Ben has finally given up when his financial advisor calls and says his individual retirement account has been seized by his father to pay for the damage. Beck then arrives at the house, whom Junior claims as his uncle, and Flo sees this as a chance to be rid of Junior. Beck kidnaps Flo and Junior by pretending to take them on a family outing, and leaves a ransom note for Ben.
While Ben first sees this as good riddance to his browbeating wife and the trouble-making Junior, he soon notices signs that Junior is not the monster he appeared. Through a series of pictures Junior drew, he depicts children and adults who treated him poorly as deformed monsters with hostile surroundings, but depicted Ben as a man in a pleasant background, revealing that he did value him as a father figure. Ben, realizing that Junior's behavior was simply a reaction to how he himself was treated by the rather selfish and condescending adults he had been surrounded by most of his young life, undertakes a rescue mission to get Junior back from Beck.
Now exerting a more assertive attitude, Ben first steals his neighbor's car and hat and drives it all over their yard. He also appeals to his father for the ransom money. When his father says Ben ought let Flo and Junior rot, Ben pushes a button that puts Big Ben unknowingly on camera, where he ends up revealing his true nature on the news, even mooning the camera. Ben catches up with Beck and Junior at the circus. Junior is rescued after escaping from Beck through a trapeze act, and he calls Ben "Dad" for the first time.
Beck drives away, but the Healys are now on his tail. Flo, who was stuffed in a suitcase, tells Ben she wants a divorce, and he tells her to shut up. Eventually, the suitcase flies over the wall, and ends up in the back of a pig farmer's truck. Beck is arrested, but not before getting a shot off, which hits Ben in the chest. Thinking he has died, Junior tearfully apologizes and tells him he loves him. Ben wakes up and realizes the bullet ricocheted off his good-luck prune. Junior removes his bow tie and throws it over the bridge after Ben tells him he just wants him to be himself.John Ritter as Benjamin 'Ben' Healy, Jr.
Michael Oliver as Junior
Jack Warden as Benjamin 'Big Ben' Healy, Sr. Ben's wealthy but selfish father
Gilbert Gottfried as Igor Peabody. The adoption agent at the orphanage
Amy Yasbeck as Flo Healy. Ben's wife
Michael Richards as Martin Beck. An escaped convict who goes by the moniker "The Bow Tie Killer"
Peter Jurasik as Roy. Ben and Flo's neighbor
Colby Kline as Lucy. A selfish, mean, and spoiled 6-year-old
Dennis Dugan (cameo) as All American Dad
The film was shot on location in the state of Texas, from October to November 1989. The cities that were used for filming were Dallas, Farmers Branch, Fort Worth, Irving, and Mesquite.
During a 2014 interview on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski revealed that the story was inspired by the 1988 Los Angeles Times article "An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins" about a married couple suing an adoption agency after they were not informed that their adopted son had severe mental health issues with violent tendencies and had been previously returned to the agency multiple times. While other writers pitched the story as a horror film in the vein of Bad Seed or The Omen, Alexander and Karaszewski thought it had potential as a comedy, envisioning a dark, adult satire of the then-popular trend in films where cute kids teach cynical adults how to love, as seen in Baby Boom, Parenthood (directly spoofed by the film's poster), Look Who's Talking, Uncle Buck, Mr. Mom, Kindergarten Cop and 3 Men and a Baby. However, the studio insisted upon turning it into a children's film, a conversion which necessitated numerous reshoots and rewrites, leading to a difficult production that left all involved disappointed and anticipating it to bomb. The film defied these expectations, becoming a surprise hit and Universal's most profitable film of 1990 but was still so embarrassing for Alexander and Karaszewski (Alexander even cried after the cast and crew screening) that the two tried to distance themselves from the film, which proved difficult. Studios were initially reluctant to hire them or take them seriously based on their work on such a prominent disreputable film but, as the years went by, they would eventually come to work with executives who were children when it first came out, grew up watching its frequent TV airings and were excited to be meeting its writers. Looking back, they still feel it is "a mess," but take some pride in being involved with one of the "very few [PG-rated] children's films THAT black and THAT crazy" (citing the scene where Flo commits adultery with an escaped serial killer while her husband is catatonic and contemplating murdering his seven-year-old son in the next room as an example) adding "and it's funny."
On 2015, director Dennis Dugan revealed he was hired for the movie, his first theatrical release after a decade of television directing, once in his audition for Universal, he jumped on the executives' coffee table and said "You're looking at me like I'm fucking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos." Dugan suggested John Ritter, with whom he had worked in his actor career, for the role of Ben Healy. The studio was initially reluctant, feeling they needed a more famous actor, but eventually relented. For the role of "Big Ben" Healy, Jack Warden first refused the role, and then Dugan offered half his net points. Warden was so touched he accepted the work while not taking Dugan's payments. Amy Yasbeck was cast as Ritter's wife, and both fell in love during production, eventually marrying in 1999. During production, both Ritter and Gilbert Gottfried were allowed to ad lib, making Universal complain at Dugan for shooting too much footage for Gottfried's scenes. The first test screening was disastrous, with 70 percent of the audience walking out, verbal complaints from viewers, and a score of only 30. The studio forced two weeks of reshoots, including a retooled ending and the addition of key scenes like the girl's birthday party.
The film debuted at third place. It went on to be a commercial success at the box office, grossing $54 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.
The film received widely negative reviews upon its release. On the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, it received a critics' rating of 4% based on 28 reviews, and an audience rating of 41%. The critic consensus reads: "Mean-spirited and hopelessly short on comic invention, Problem Child is a particularly unpleasant comedy, one that's loaded with manic scenery chewing and juvenile pranks". On Metacritic, the film has a 27/100 rating based on 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Although the film was rated PG, it is still heavily censored when shown on television due to the remarks made about adoption, which critics saw as insensitive. Problem Child was not screened for critics prior to its release. It acquired a PG rating instead of a PG-13 rating, in regards to a scene where a man mooning a camera is briefly shown; as well as a scene that briefly reveals snapshots that Junior took of people on toilets and in showers.
Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post, noted "Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well, so that there's still some surprise in the punch lines when they come. Essentially, the problem here is the same as the problem in Gremlins 2. It's basically about tearing stuff up, and after a while you grow tired of seeing variations on the same joke of a cute kid committing horrible atrocities."
One of the posters for the film showed a cat in a tumble dryer, with the implication being that Junior had put it inside. A group named In Defence Of Animals organised protests against the posters, and some cinemas took them down in response. The group also objected to a scene in the film in which Junior splinters a cat's legs.
For the film (as well as The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Look Who's Talking Too), Gilbert Gottfried was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Trump in Ghosts Can't Do It.
The film was more successful on home video. The VHS version adds an extra bit just before the closing credits, in which Junior interrupts the film, to tell the audience that he'll be back next summer for Problem Child 2. Then he disappears and a loud flatulent noise is heard, followed by Ben shouting "Junior!", him laughing, then the closing credits roll. The VHS version was released on January 31, 1991.
The first DVD release was released by GoodTimes Entertainment on May 1, 2001. Problem Child and Problem Child 2 were released together on DVD in the US on March 2, 2004, as a package entitled Problem Child Tantrum Pack. These films were presented in open-matte full screen only. However, no home video release thus far features the deleted footage shown on TV airings of the film.
The film was re-released on the Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (with other comedy films like Kindergarten Cop, Kicking & Screaming, and Major Payne) in anamorphic widescreen (being the film's first widescreen Region 1 DVD release) on August 5, 2008.
The film inspired two sequels: the first, Problem Child 2, was released theatrically in 1991; the second, Problem Child 3: Junior in Love, was a television film aired on the NBC in 1995. The first one brought back the original cast in their original roles and picked up where the first film ended. However, Yasbeck was given a new role with a new dynamic totally opposite to her original character. In the third and final film, recast Ben and Junior with William Katt and Justin Chapman, while Gottfried and Warden reprised their roles as Mr. Peabody and Big Ben and does not follow the storyline of the first two films.
There was an animated TV series that aired in 1993. Gottfried was the only original cast member to be featured as a voice-over actor, making him the only cast member involved in all three films as well as the cartoon (Warden was in all three films, but not the TV series).
NBC has ordered a pilot for a live-action TV series based on the film, produced by STX Entertainment, Imagine TV, and NBCUniversal.
Twelve minutes worth of deleted footage were featured in most, if not all, television airings of the film. None of the following scenes have ever been available on DVD. The first TV version aired on September 15, 1991, on NBC-TV. The profanity in it was re-dubbed with milder obscenities and phrases.