Fun with Dick and Jane

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It’s the year 2000, and Dick Harper (Jim Carrey) has a cozy suburban existence, living in a well-to-do subdivision with his travel-agent wife Jane (Tea Leoni) and their little boy Billy (Jacob Davich). Dick works for the Globodyne Corporation, one of those companies where you’re not sure what they actually “do,” and where the employee parking lot has row after row of identical BMWs. They’re in Southern California, and it’s always sunny. Life is good.

“Fun with Dick and Jane” catches up with the Harpers on the day that Dick is made Vice President of Communications — just in time to be the fall guy when the company goes belly-up due to some Enron-style malfeasance on the part of CEO Jack McCallister (Alec Baldwin) and CFO Frank Bascombe (Richard Jenkins). Jane has quit her job at the travel agency in anticipation of Dick’s promotion, and now Dick doesn’t have a job, either. Oh, and he might be indicted.

The “fun” in the title would be seen as ironic by Dick and Jane themselves, but for us as onlookers, what transpires next is a jolly good time indeed. The one-line summary of the movie (a remake of a 1977 George Segal/Jane Fonda comedy) says that Dick and Jane turn to convenience-store robbery to pay the bills. But that doesn’t happen until halfway through; the movie is actually about a decent couple who are driven to extremes by a lousy economy and bad luck. “We followed the rules and we got screwed,” Dick says.

As much fun as the comedy is, it is tinged by some poignancy as Dick and Jane endure one humiliation after another in their attempts to make an honest living. Dick gets a job at a Kost-Mart greeter at a salary that would be impossible to feed a family on; Jane signs up for pharmaceutical trials; in one particularly pathetic sequence, Dick joins the illegal immigrants on the street corner to get work as a day laborer. They gradually sell their furniture and other belongings. They take showers in their neighbors’ lawn sprinklers, because their own lawn was repossessed. (“I didn’t even know they could DO that!” Jane says in bewilderment.)

It is no surprise that the film mixes comedy and pathos so well, considering the screenplay is by Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller, the former the creator of the painfully true TV comedies “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” the latter one of his collaborators. It would be easy to show a suburban couple turning to a life of a crime; it takes finesse to make us truly believe, as Dick and Jane do, that life has given them no other choice.

Directed by Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”) with a satirical eye for exaggeration — note the scene where Dick competes like a gladiator for a job interview against 100 men all dressed just like him — “Fun with Dick and Jane” would have been better if it had stuck to its convictions. Rather than Dick and Jane getting menial jobs and losing them for silly reasons, it would have made for more insightful commentary if they had kept the jobs but still been unable to make ends meet on $7-an-hour salaries. Likewise, the movie lets Dick and Jane chicken out in the last act, when they suddenly become Robin Hood instead of just robbers.

Yet it’s hard to find too much fault with a movie as cheerfully twisted as this one, with giddy jokes like young Billy, having been raised mostly by the immigrant maid, speaking with a Mexican accent, or the general delight in hearing yuppies use terms like “caper” and “vault job” even though they have no legitimate experience in either. Carrey does too much of his trademark self-indulgent mugging and cavorting, but maybe it’s a given that in any film role, Carrey is going to do too much of that. For the most part, it’s a team effort, him and Leoni, out there like Bonnie and Clyde.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, one F-word.)

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