Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star

Starring:
  • Joe Dirt
  • Jay Sherman
  • Happy Madison Punching Bag Edie McClurg

 

 
Directed by Sam Weisman, Cashing in Favors for Cameos

"David! That's my royalty check from Comedy Central for 'The Critic' reruns! The Filmsnobs viewership alone accounts for five of these ten dollars!"

Squandered Opportunities

The banner of artistic freedom wrought by Adam Sandler's wealth, Happy Madison Productions, has yet to make a decent movie. Its biggest success (measured by total gross over production cost) is The Master of Disguise—a movie indicative of the key problem with the Happy Madison philosophy. They take an incisive comedian like Dana Carvey (see "The Dana Carvey Show") and shovel him into a juvenile movie that handcuffs him from producing the smart satire we loved on "Saturday Night Live." (The highlights of Disguise are Carvey's George W. Bush using kung-fu to rescue the Constitution and Jesse Ventura proclaiming that the plastic Jesse figurine is "an action figure, not a doll!") Or take The Adventures of Joe Dirt, which could have been a bittersweet comedy at the intersection of heartbreak and guitar rock (spiced by a sleazy exploitation take from Dennis Miller), but ended up selling itself to the Rob Schneider crowd.

Sandler's popularity presents a production paradox: The appeal of his poop joke and punishment humor used to be its offensiveness, but as Sandler has become a mainstream icon, he feels the need to artificially inject romance and sentiment into movies to expand his audience—why else borrow a Capra premise to make John Tuturro wears google eyes? Recent Sandler fare lacks the vitality of his Farley-supported features like Billy Madison. The cliché fits: Sandler has lost his edge, and with Happy Madison Productions, he's muted followers Carvey and Spade.

That's too bad, because the problem with Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star is that its goldmine premise is sweetened into sentiment. Dickie (David Spade) is a former child star whose adult life is a quagmire of self-doubt; as he tells Leif Garrett, Danny Bonaduce, Dustin Diamond, et al, at the weekly FCS poker game, "I miss the love." This should be an opportunity for cultural satire; with skilled direction, the polarized highs and lows offer opportunity for intimate, intense character study. Of course, this is not what we ask of a David Spade movie, but if Dickie Roberts had, in the least, resisted the easy jokes and force-fed sap, then it might have elevated itself above any Happy Madison production to date.

Expectedly, the jokes stem directly from either Spade's shtick (screaming, "I'll take Brendan Frazer to block!" at George of the Jungle) or the Creativity Department at Happy Madison (Wesson Oil + Slide and Slide = Concussion). As usual, it's hit or miss: Dickie converting a tree house into a Disco Inferno, funny; Dickie in a stroller calling Edie McClurg fat, not so much. Some of the cameos are amusing: There's no harm in Tom Arnold hitting on chicks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or Jon Lovitz donating a kidney to Rob Reiner.

But these nuggets of fun are offset by disconcerting, maudlin moments with Dickie and his adoptive family. Without character consistently, the high-concept flies right over us. Dickie's character arc has so many gaps that its resolution asks for cynicism. If this movie had been controlled into satire rather than farce, then the absurdly mawkish moments might have served a sublime purpose: We, the Hollywood audience, cheer for Dickey to have the sort of happy ending known only on television and in movies. These moments sicken the audience, thus spinning Dickie's pain back onto us: How is Dickie supposed to know what love is when his childhood was a farce of artificial affection—for which he was quite loved for by us? If Sandler and Happy Madison Production had any guts—and by guts I don't mean hitting Peter Gallagher in the face with a tennis ball—they would have darkened the film just a bit and challenged the audience. But Sandler disrespects himself and his audience, so he continually hires directors who are unconcerned by tonal mess.

Exemplifying the disappointment of Dickie Roberts is the waste of Spade's sharp "Hollywood Minute" jabs at the industry. Much pain is taken to establish that Rob Reiner actually still cares about his movies—which, of course, points to the problem with recent Reiner: insulting saccharine romance wrought by lazy scripts. In fact, Dicke's audition script sounds like a parody of Reiner schlock. Or the Former Child Star card game that's a riff on the TV stars poker lesson from Ocean's 11: "I really don't get George Clooney," says Barry Williams. "What's the deal with Brad Pitt?" asks Corey Feldman.

But even more amazing is a scene at the little girl's elementary school spirit squad audition. Before Sally, some fifth grader—midriff bare, lots of make-up and glitter, and skirt hiked almost up to her buttocks—does a pelvic-gyrating, self-fondling, sex tease. Which goes on for well over a minute. This scene potentially has several layers: A satirical jab at the philosophy of American Beauty, a deconstruction of the Britney Spears marketing machine, a literalized extension of the repulsive Olsen Twins phenomena, and even for Dickie Roberts himself, a picture of his little sister of child stardom exploitation. What's better is that the scene is so offensive, so repulsive, yet it feels so inevitable that the audience is forced to confront it emotionally. Spade's power comes from his willingness to openly attack cultural targets on their basest levels, and this single scene could have been Spade's defining moment: Insulting Hollywood and the audience's complicitness in fantasizing about fucking little girls. Instead, the joke merely threatens to strike its fangs, and then slithers harmlessly away.

 

As I see it, there are two solutions to fixing Dickie Roberts. One, let Rob Reiner actually direct the movie as a parody of Misery, with Dickie wrecking his car on the way to meet his adoptive family, starring Edie McClurg in the Kathy Bates role. The second option is for Happy Madison Productions to actually take a risk and talk Paul Thomas Anderson into directing the movie. Not only is Sandler squandering the critical credibility earned by Punch Drunk Love, his complacent offerings of Deuce Bigalow derivatives are not expanding his audience.

This is my idea: Let Anderson direct Dickie Roberts as if Dickie (still played by Spade) is the whiz-kid on the game show in Magnolia (You remember: The one who was so distraught that he peed his pants onstage). P.T. clearly understands the Sandlerian deconstruction, and the Former Child Star milieu has a sort of fringe-pop, Boogie Nights quality. The same sort of self-doubt, self-loathing we saw from Sandler lurks inside of Spade ("Just Shoot Me" often seems like a plea to do just that), which is screaming to be let out. If Anderson could color the Sandler humor with the smarm of Boogie Nights, the Joe Dirt crowd would show for the opening weekend, but the critics would be forced to come onboard, extending the film's theater life. And most importantly, if the film were good, Happy Madison Productions could puncture its image as an assembly line of high-concept "comedies."

This is the sort of direction David Spade needs. David Spade doesn't need to let his props (hair seems too large a part of his characters) do his acting for him. He needs the guidance of a real director, someone to escort him consciously through the layers of his personality. P.T. Anderson would film in the shadows of Spade, as with the darkened profile of Adam Sandler on the DVD cover of Punch Drunk Love. Barry Egan's tire iron is the shadow of Billy Madison's golf club; perhaps Dickie Roberts' lost celebrity is the shadow of bitterness felt in "The Hollywood Minute" or "Spade in America." As it stands, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star is a disappointing and unnecessary pander to the Hot Chick crowd, squandering the opportunity to create something bitingly funny and universally human from a pop culture archetype.

The Pitch:
1 The Adventures of Joe Dirt
Plus
 
1 Danny Pintauro
Equals
 
2 Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star
See It For:

Spade's bizarre Water-Wiggler/Teri Hatcher fantasy.