David Spade has never had a hit film on his own, and he has given us little reason to think he deserves one. When he is being snarky and cruel, as in his old “Hollywood Minute” bit on “Saturday Night Live,” he can be extremely funny. But on his own, playing a character and following a plot — especially if he wrote or co-wrote the script — his films tend to be amateurish and embarrassing.
“Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” does not break this trend. It is the least funny of his films so far (yes, worse than “Joe Dirt”), and while it at least generally avoids potty humor, it also generally avoids humor altogether. It is brimming with moments that are supposed to make us have actual FEELINGS — devices meant to touch our hearts that utterly fail in every instance.
Spade plays Dickie, who as a youth in the 1970s was star of a fictional TV show called “The Glimmer Gang,” with a catchphrase and everything. Now that’s he an adult and washed-up, he spends his days parking cars and his nights playing poker with fellow former child stars like Greg Brady and Screech.
While auditioning for a Rob Reiner film, Reiner himself explains the problem with Dickie’s acting skills: Having been a child star, he missed out on having a childhood. He’s never lived a normal life. How, then, could he be expected to play a fully realized, dynamic character in a film? (The same could be said for Spade himself, though I’m not sure what kind of childhood he had. I think he may simply be a bad actor.)
So Dickie hires an average suburban family to be his foster family for a month, to give him the childhood experiences he never had, so that he can get the movie part. The wife, Grace (Mary McCormack), rightly observes that this is the stupidest idea ever conceived, and her children, Sally (Jenna Boyd) and Sam (Scott Terra), agree. Only the dad, George (Craig Bierko) — a fan of Dickie’s old TV show — sees any value in it, that value being the $20,000 Dickie is paying them.
Ultimately, everyone learns lessons from each other. Dickie learns how to be a real person, and Grace learns how to be more obnoxious. (I didn’t say the lessons were useful.) In the meantime, the film constantly feels like it’s in the expository stage, just about to really take off — and then it never does. It feels like one big set up for a joke that never gets told. Instead, there are constant attempts to tug at our heart strings, leading up to a finale that is so unbelievable and absurd as to be maddening.
The best part of this unfunny, wearying film is the closing credits. During them, an ensemble of former child stars sings a song, “We are the World”-style, about their travails. The song is not especially funny — it’s just a lot of variations on “If one more person calls me ‘Tootie,’ I’m going to go ballistic” — but it’s delightfully nostalgic to see so many real stars assembled together. Those of us who grew up on TV will rejoice at seeing four Bradys, three “What’s Happening!!” stars and many others all in one place. What must they have discussed? What memories were shared? Did Wally from “Leave It to Beaver” have anything to say to Nicholas from “Eight Is Enough,” for example?
It doesn’t even matter that they’re appearing at the end of an extremely bad film. I doubt they particularly wanted the exposure; they probably just thought it would be fun to have a reunion of former child stars. If only the film itself had captured just a hint of that kind of merriment, it might have been better.
D (1 hr., 39 min.; )