Richie Rich

(Written for a 2002 “Reviewer Rumble” tournament among contributors.)

What is our fascination with rich people? We ascribe unusual traits to them, and we turn them into celebrities based only on their wealth. But when you get right down to it, they have their servants take their gold-embossed tiger-skin pants off them one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

The film “Richie Rich” plays on every kid’s fantasy of being so wealthy that no one likes him. It is based on a comic book, though I suspect any child who was a frequent reader of it received savage pummelings from the other children on a regular basis. Even “The Incredible Hulk” had more readers than “Richie Rich.”

So no one was clamoring for a movie, but that’s Hollywood for you, giving us movies we didn’t ask for and then demanding we watch them. “Richie Rich” stars Macaulay Culkin as the 12-year-old only child of billionaires Richard and Regina Rich (Edward Herrmann and Christine Ebersole), who are so far from being like ordinary rich people that it almost makes the film funny (almost). For example, they contribute millions to charities and try to help the poor. Also, they firmly believe — try to control your laughter here — that money cannot buy happiness, and that some things are more important than riches. Also, they love each other almost as much as they love their son. They’re nice to their servants. What bizarro world do these people live in? If rich people existed like this in real life, they would be the subject of 100 documentaries per year.

The Riches are apparently wealthy enough to own their servants outright. Since Richie likes baseball, he plays on the lawn with maids, butlers and cooks as fielders. Not only do they do this willingly despite it not being in their job descriptions and despite possessing no prowess for the game, but they even wear their various tuxedos and chef’s hats while they play. Couldn’t the Riches spring for uniforms? It seems unfair for the maid to be forced to field ground balls in her maid outfit, which she probably has to wash herself. But evidently, these people get paid enough to put up with any measure of humiliation. Perhaps the job market is soft and they don’t want to risk being fired.

At any rate, Richie is going through that phase in all rich kids’ lives where he appreciates his personal trainer Claudia Schiffer, but wishes he had some puberty to help him REALLY appreciate her. Also, he wants friends. He heads down to the sandlot and, with the help of his valet Cadbury (Jonathan Hyde), accumulates four baseball-playing friends: Boy, Girl, Fat Kid and Black Kid. Only the girl is given a name (it is Gloria); the other three will continue to exist solely as types. (The Fat Kid is always eating, ’cause, you know, that’s what fat people do.)

The kids go to the Rich manor and engage in all sorts of amazing activities that only rich people can provide. They do this because Cadbury bribed them. At the end of their hollow, mirthless frolicking, one kid declares, “This is the best day of my life.” I wanted to cry.

But there is trouble brewing. Dad’s business associate Lawrence Van Dough (John Larroquette) plants a bomb in the Rich family plane in the hopes of killing them all so he can get their money. Richie doesn’t get on the plane, though, and the parents spot the bomb in time to survive, though they are adrift on a life raft for what must be six or eight weeks. (Since this is a kids’ movie, they have plenty of food and drink and do not get the third-degree sunburns or slow-boiling insanity that would afflict real people.)

Richie, who previously acted like an adult though a child, now temporarily takes over the family corporation, at which point he starts acting like a child though functioning as an adult. This is because the movie only grasps the most fundamental comedy building blocks such as “juxtaposition.” If Richie is living a child’s life, it will be funny if he acts like a grown-up; if he’s working as an adult, it will be funny if he roller-blades to work. You can do comedy, too, now that you understand that little secret.

By the way, the unimaginable trauma of having your parents lost in a plane crash and being left with no living relatives does not faze Richie Rich. When evil Van Dough closes the factory where Gloria’s mom works, Gloria says to Richie, “I’m really sorry about your parents, but can’t you help?” The lesson for the kiddies watching? Grief is for sissies.

And so the movie hobbles along like a crippled lobster for 95 minutes before finally stumbling awkwardly into a foregone conclusion. This was grim-faced creepy child actor Macaulay Culkin’s last film for nearly a decade, and the video box quotes American Radio Network’s Gerri Garner as saying it is “one of [his] richest performances.” If this is merely a pun on the title of the film, then why bother quoting it? And if she really means it was a fine performance, then why is she not being medicated under the watchful eye of a trained team of psychologists? It’s a perplexing situation, and one that I will have my valet look into at his next available opportunity.

D+ (1 hr., 35 min.; PG, mild stuff.)