Every so often a movie comes along whose plot makes you seriously wonder what drugs the scriptwriters were on at its conception. Was there no one, you would really like to know, who had the guts to step forward and object? Perhaps it was submitted as a practical joke but for some reason, taken seriously and decided that it would be perfect on the big screen. Such was 1991’s “Drop Dead Fred,” in which the heroine, Phoebe Cates, deals with a problem that many of us can identify with: which is, what if you were desperately trying to win back your spouse, but your imaginary friend from childhood reappeared one day and tried to help. but kept messing things up, albeit in a humorous way?
The pros and cons of having imaginary friends, especially ones that resurface in adulthood, is not exactly well-trodden movie ground, although the quest of young, attractive women in love who are convinced that Mr. Wrong is their one and only certainly is. Another familiar theme in “Drop Dead Fred,” is the struggle to break free from one’s domineering mother (here played by Marsha Mason) and society’s expectations, which is the central journey Phoebe’s character, who has transitioned from a spunky little girl into an easily dominated woman, must take. This is where the imaginary friend (Rik Mayall) comes in. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey play passionately-attached schoolgirls whose immersion in a shared fantasy world eventually prompts them to commit murder. “Drop Dead Fred,” is nowhere near that dark, as Rik’s antics are more on the level of a bratty but irrepressible little boy. As a child, Phoebe eagerly followed his lead, but eventually, she decided it would be a good idea to, well, grow up. Or her mother did. In most cases, this would be seen as an uneventful and normal transition, but the truth is that Phoebe is still only a grownup on the outside. She still needs to develop all those intangible inner things like independence, good judgment, etc.
When the movie opens, Phoebe loses her job and financial security in a series of humorous only-in-the-movies mishaps and is forced to move back in with her mother (though she still holds out hope that she and her husband will reunite). The husband is a cad (and a cheater), but of course, it will take Phoebe almost the entire movie to realize this. In her childhood bedroom, she discovers a jack-in-the-box that somehow magically releases Rik, who agrees to help her. After a series of misadventures, however, Phoebe sees the light and realizes that perhaps true love (in the form of an old friend) has been under her nose all along. And there is a happy ending for Rik, too. But to this day, I still wonder what exactly was going through the head of whoever greenlighted this project.