Improper Channels (1981)

improper channels

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: The system is screwed.

Jeffrey Martley (Alan Arkin) is a middle-aged man soon to be divorced from his wife Diana (Mariette Hartley) who is driving along in his car with his 5-year-old daughter Nancy (Sarah Stevens) when he is forced to put on the brakes quickly in order to avoid hitting another vehicle. Sarah, who was not wearing a seatbelt since there were no such seat belt laws at the time, falls to the car floor and hits her head. It is a minor bruise, but Jeffrey takes her to the hospital as a precaution. As the doctors are examining her social worker Gloria (Monica Parker) overhears Jeffrey’s conversation with the medical staff and thinks that the injuries may have come from child abuse. She takes the child out of his custody and puts her into a protected foster home while she uses the help of a computer expert (Martin Yan) to come up with as much dirt from Jeffrey’s past as she can in order to prevent him from getting her back. Jeffrey and Diana hire a lawyer and try to fight the charges, but find that the system is against them.

This is a wretched attempt at satire that never gets off the ground. Director Eric Till’s bland direction makes this thing look like a TV-movie and the majority of it is more like a drama. The comedy is not very funny and the little that there is comes off as forced and out of place. Jeffrey’s and Diana’s situation becomes more harrowing as it goes along and this thing probably would have worked better and been more riveting had they kept it at a realistic and dramatic level all the way through.

The social workers are portrayed as being completely inept, incompetent, and malicious without any balance making me wonder if the writers had a major grudge against them in real-life. Gloria’s boss Harold Cleavish (Harry Ditson) is particularly unlikable and comes off as an all-around prick in every way. However, he does get the film’s one and only funny line when he chastises Gloria for believing that the social services profession is about helping people:

Harold: I have been in social services for 9 years and in that time I haven’t helped anyone and I hope to God that I never will. If you really want to help humanity then become a prostitute.

Hartley is a wonderful actress and I will never forget her Emmy award winning performance in a guest spot on ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV-show unfortunately her career never took off despite a great debut in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. Today most people probably know her for her Polariod commercials that she did with James Garner back in the 80’s. Even so she is great here and gives the material more effort than it deserves. Arkin who has played the man against the system many times seems strangely reserved.

The most annoying thing about the film is the ending where Jeffrey turns-the-tables and tries sticking it to the system. Having an average man who works as an architect and has no special computer experience break into the computer systems of the social welfare office and erase his records and send everything on the fritz is too exaggerated. Having him dump out streams of computer printout paper from the office windows and line the city streets with it is too goofy and unbelievable to be even slightly humorous. The filmmakers display a limited and confused understanding of the technological revolution and treat it like it is nothing more than a passing fad that can be easily taken down by the common man. The pat and silly wrap-up makes light of an otherwise serious issue and thus makes the entire production stupid and pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: April 17, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Eric Till

Studio: Crown International Pictures

Available: VHS

3 responses to “Improper Channels (1981)

  1. LOL! Ouch!! I guess I won’t be watching this one, time to play the funeral march…

  2. This was one of those wretched “Tax Shelter” films done in Canada in the late 70’s-early 80’s. As mediocre as it is, it was far from the worst piece of dredge done during that God-awful period. Go watch “Death Ship”…or “Shoot”.

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