There’s always been something about David Spade that has annoyed me. The comedian prides himself on being so snarky and sarcastic that I find him difficult to like. This quality has made me feel like he’s kind of creepy on screen. The one exception is when Spade is biting the show business hand that feeds him. The Hollywood Minute sketch he used to do on “Saturday Night Live” put the anti-social parts of his personality to good use. Show biz is often so phony that it’s nice to see someone attack it with such venom. Spade’s big screen work so far has been nothing short of abysmal (Black Sheep, Lost & Found, Joe Dirt, to name three), but I thought he might have found the perfect idea in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. In fact, Spade did find the perfect idea for himself; he just wasn’t smart enough to know what to do with it.
The movie begins with a parody of the E! True Hollywood Story. We learn the tale of Dickie Roberts, whose hideous stage mother (Doris Roberts) pushed him into the limelight. A starring role on a TV show called “The Glitter Gang” led to overnight stardom and a catch phrase that swept the country (“This is nuckin’ futs!”). When the show ended, so did Dickie’s career.
We now find him working as a valet. He participates in weekly poker games with other former child stars: Barry Williams of “The Brady Bunch,” Leif Garrett, Corey Feldman, and the guy who played Screech on “Saved by the Bell.” Dickie occasionally finds employment, such as a stint on “Celebrity Boxing” where he gets his ass kicked by Emmanuel “Webster” Lewis. When Dickie finds out that director Rob Reiner is looking for someone to star in his much-heralded new movie, Dickie sets out to snag an audition. He gets one, only to have Reiner tell him that he’s not “real” enough to make the part work.
A dejected Dickie gets an idea: he will hire a family to let him move in so he can reclaim the childhood he never had, thereby turning him into a “real” person. And so he moves into the Finney home. Father George (Craig Bierko) is a car salesman who agrees to the deal for selfish reasons (cash, plus a chance to have Dickie do free TV commercials). His reluctant wife Grace (Mary McCormack) doesn’t want the obnoxious stranger around her children, Sam (Scott Terra) and Sally (Jenna Boyd). The kids don’t want him around either. Dickie doesn’t seem to care, and he begins to live out his fantasy of being an 8-year old. (You know, the problem with this is that watching David Spade act like an 8-year old actually makes him seem more mature.)
It is a strange irony that David Spade – who seems to have such anger and contempt within him – always insists on filling his movies with sappy “heartwarming” moments and “life affirming” messages. This is the problem that ultimately ruins Dickie Roberts. The early scenes, which parody the desperation of washed-up celebrities, are hilarious. Dickie clings to the pathetic notion that people still care who he is. That’s funny. But as soon as he moves in with the Finney family, the movie turns into a mushy domestic comedy that falls flat on its face.
During the entire middle of the film, Dickie softens his rough edges and, most unlikely, helps the family become less dysfunctional. It turns out that George is a jerk who neglects Grace. She soon finds herself falling for her “adoptive” child (a joke the movie never does anything with) because he treats her nicely. Sam and Sally also find that Dickie is able to solve their problems; in one dull scene, he humiliates three bullies who have been tormenting them. In return, they introduce him to the pleasures of various toys and teach him how to ride a bike. It is giving nothing away to say that, by the end, Dickie has finally become a “good” person who doesn’t just think about himself, and the family has miraculously achieved suburban bliss. What started off as a biting comedy has turned out to have a soft, squishy middle.
That’s the big problem with the movie: it abandons its own clever premise. There are other ones (such as the annoying tendency to repeat jokes), but they aren’t nearly as destructive to the film as a whole. David Spade could have made a really funny comedy skewering not just former child stars, but also the neuroses a fickle American public can cause them to suffer. He started off doing just that, then decided to make a lame piece of sub-sitcom fluff instead. Big mistake.
( out of four)
Note: The end credit sequence of this movie is undeniably the best thing here. Nearly two dozen former child stars – including Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman, cast members of “The Brady Bunch,” and Rodney Allen Rippey – gather together for a “We Are the World”-type sing-along. This sequence is indicative of what the entire movie should have been – a biting-yet-affectionate parody of lost celebrity.
Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star is rated PG-13 for crude and sex-related humor, language and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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