Up to now, whether on TV or in movies, David Spade has always played approximately the same character: a smug little punk. We would give him points for doing something different as a white-trash mullett-wearer in “Joe Dirt,” except for one thing: It’s really still the same smug little punk.
I don’t mean that Joe Dirt is a smug character. On the contrary, having been abandoned by his parents as a child and becoming a loser and a loner since then, Joe is the epitome of contrition and humility. He talks a good game when it comes to picking fights, but he knows he has nothing to back it up.
This would be rather sweet were it not for the way Spade plays him, which is all condescension and snottiness. When Joe Dirt speaks earnestly of loving AC/DC and souped-up cars, we can tell David Spade wants us to laugh AT this idiot, not with him. It is obvious that Spade himself has disdain for the very character he is playing, giving him no more depth or reality than is required for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And if Spade has no affection for Joe Dirt, why should we?
If you think this movie-critic babble about “characterization” has little to do with a broad gross-out comedy like “Joe Dirt,” think again. No story can succeed without characters who are likable in some sense, if not because we actually think they’re good people, then at least because we admire their strength, ferocity, cleverness or whatever. And comedy is best when we sympathize with the people involved enough to care what happens next, be it good or bad. Without that, it’s nothing but a string of slapstick mishaps that gets old fast.
And “Joe Dirt” gets old fast.
The plot has Joe finding his way onto a Los Angeles DJ’s talk show and telling the story of his parents ditching him at the Grand Canyon, and his subsequent search for them. His great loves in life have been his mullett haircut (actually a wig that got stuck to his head, he says) and a dog that a drunk redneck killed.
The listeners all realize that his platonic friend Brandy (Brittany Daniel) loves him deeply, but he was too naive to see it. Besides, he was focused on finding his family.
It’s all very tedious, except for a few gross-out gags that break up the monotony by irritating the audience. (A dog’s testicles — shown in vivid detail — get frozen to a porch, and perhaps it goes without saying that at one point in the movie, Joe Dirt gets covered in excrement. Why must someone always be covered in excrement?)
The film was written by Spade and Fred Wolf. Wolf also penned “Black Sheep” and “Dirty Work” and was head writer at “Saturday Night Live” from 1993-1996 — one of the worst eras in the show’s history, perhaps you’ll recall. It shows.
High points: Dennis Miller is amusing as the DJ, and Christopher Walken is inspired as an unhinged school janitor who helps Joe.
Low points: Using sweet little Erik Per Sullivan — Dewey on “Malcolm in the Middle” — as the young version of repulsive Joe, shown in flashbacks. Come on, movie. Have a little class.
D (; )