“What’s the story here? ‘I’m a white trash idiot. The End’?”
—Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller) to Joe Dirt (David Spade) in Joe Dirt
“The secret was, ‘Say “dang” a lot, and that way the movie will be funny.’”
—David Spade’s commentary for Joe Dirt
David Spade, like many of the Saturday Night Live Class of 1990-1995, has yet to properly translate his particular talents to the big screen. The most obvious reason is that—unlike Adam Sandler’s loveable, overgrown man-child schtick (which by now has been parlayed into its own successful sub-genre of frattish comedy)—Spade’s most valuable talent is his sarcasm. When turned outward against the celebrity machine, as seen in Saturday Night Live‘s “Hollywood Minute” and “Spade in America” segments and now as the host of Comedy Central’s The Showbiz Show, Spade’s acrid wit is likeably direct, with a modicum of self-effacement that acknowledges the hypocrisy of a TV and movie star lampooning others for being TV and movie stars. Removed from being Spade the ironic commentator and forced into being Spade the actor, however, the comedian repeatedly falters.
In fact, in the ‘90s, it seemed as though his cinematic destiny would forever be relegated to playing the put upon foil to a flailing Chris Farley in movies like Tommy Boy or Black Sheep. When Farley died, much was made of the idea that he and Spade comprised a latter day Laurel and Hardy, and now that the big oaf was gone, the little straight man would have to come into his own. Having to this point primarily played not-so-subtle variations on his snarky Saturday Night Live persona, Spade seemed unsuited for carrying a movie on his own, his arch delivery an unlikely conceit to hang a story on all by itself. This was evidenced by the poor performance of Lost and Found, in which he was forced to play both a sarcastic con-artist and a supremely unlikely romantic leading man. Audiences and critics were predictably uninterested in seeing Spade get the girl, especially as they had been trained to laugh at him for so long as the uptight nerd with the Napoleon complex.
It was clear that if Spade wanted to sell a movie, he would have to be someone other than Spade. His recent and surprising box office success in The Benchwarmers is testament to that, and both it and his new visibility as a Comedy Central star—not to mention Heather Locklear-related gossip column inches—appears to be behind the DVD re-release of 2001’s Joe Dirt, both his first anti-Spade effort and dalliance with funny wigs. Originally drubbed at the box office and in reviews a mere five years ago, the producers are obviously hoping for a cult renaissance on video, aided by Spade’s newer generation of fans as well as those newly enamored with My Name is Earl star Jaime Pressley, who now features prominently on the cover (despite the fact that her screen time totals less than seven minutes).
Some credit, too, must be given to My Name is Earl, as well as the chortling, sleeveless denizens of the Blue Collar Comedy club, all of whom have recently made white trash loser-dom into a viable commercial enterprise. With movies like Larry the Cable Guy being greenlit, and the trailer park aesthetic creeping over into high fashion in the form of trucker hats, giant belt buckles, and unforgiving belly shirts, it’s no wonder that Columbia Pictures saw an opportunity to capitalize. We as a nation suddenly seem fascinated with the idea of the Southern rock-listening, trailer dwelling lowlife and all of the no nonsense rebelliousness and anti-fashion he supposedly embodies. In some ways, this is mirrored in our unquestioning allegiance to the idea that our president is himself an unpretentious good ol’ boy, if newspaper polls are any indication. The fact that more than half of the nation would “rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry or Gore” speaks volumes about the way we equate intellectualism and social refinery with being out of touch or even suspect. Whereas a lack of articulation, grace, or social composure, a la Bush, is seen as being “straight shooting”. Not to mention the value we place on such qualities above all. Hence, we have a country run by a president who sums up the Mideast crisis as “this shit”—which apparently makes him an honest man.
Joe Dirt is an honest man, but rather than being asked to cut through lofty ideals or boilerplate political issues with his unencumbered perspective, his quest is a personal one. Dumped as a boy at the Grand Canyon, Dirt has wandered aimlessly most of his life in search of his neglectful parents, armed with only a few fuzzy details of what they were like and his Zelig-like aptitude for being in the right place at the right time. As Dirt tells his story to an exploitive radio “shock jock” played by a typically smarmy Dennis Miller (in a role, according to Spade’s commentary, written for Howard Stern), we are treated in flashback to Dirt’s journey from an unwanted foster child to an even more unwanted adult as he travels across Hollywood’s version of the deep South, populated by redneck stereotypes clad in ill-fitting ironic t-shirts. Spade himself is a vision in a ridiculous mullet wig and pointed muttonchops, sporting faded AC/DC and Bob Seger concert tees and crowing over issues of Auto Trader magazine. These sorts of white trash accoutrements abound, from references to Dairy Queen and Dallas to squealing Pontiac Firebirds and a supporting turn from rock music’s most visible shitkicker, Kid Rock.
As Spade explains on his commentary, he and co-writer Fred Wolf both grew up in the southwestern United States around people like Joe: “dirtballs” who shunned sleeves and spent most of their days dealing crystal meth. With Joe Dirt they set out to make this sort of guy a likeable character, something they accomplish mainly by subjecting Joe to constant humiliation. Joe is thus repeatedly covered in all manner of feces, vomit, and crude oil, humped by large dogs, pelted with food by schoolchildren, dropped from hot air balloons, punched in the face, mauled by an alligator and—in the movie’s most bizarre and extended tangent—kidnapped and tortured in a direct parody of Silence of the Lambs after which he is repeatedly ridiculed for being a homosexual. Joe’s unflappable nature in the face of constant rejection and torture is what is supposed to make him a hero, his attitude embodied in his oft-repeated personal slogan, “Life is a garden: dig it.”
It’s this determination, as well as the sympathetic nature of his story, that turns him into an overnight celebrity within the movie. This being a scriptwriter’s version of the modern world, of course, everyone from sorority sisters to businessmen to patrons in a beauty salon and lifeguards on the beach regularly gather around the radio, enthralled as Joe offers up his life story. He soon finds himself a cult hero, with his face on the covers of magazines and his name being bandied about as a “sensation” on the nightly news and MTV’s Total Request Live (whose Carson Daly makes a pointless cameo.) It’s with the newfound love and attention of the world that Joe is aided in finding his parents, who turn out to be not what he was looking for. Hence, the message of the movie is stated, explicitly and repeatedly, that “home is where you make it.” Joe thus realizes that the friends he has made along the way, and especially his love interest, Brittany Daniel (whose performance relies more on the cut of her denim shorts than her acting), are more of a family than his biological one.
It’s a sentimental message, and one that Spade seems fond of making, as it’s also the thesis statement of his two previous collaborations with Chris Farley. Unfortunately, as in Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, it comes at the end of 90 minutes of scatological slapstick and broad characterization. Predictably, there’s little that’s subtle about Joe Dirt, from Spade’s outlandish appearance to the wall-to-wall soundtrack of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doobie Brothers, and Blue Oyster Cult that punctuates every single scene. Furthermore, despite the writers’ obvious affection for the “loveable dirtball” as an archetype, on screen he is little more than a greasy punching bag through which they can explore every white trash stereotype imaginable. Even supporting turns from Roseanna Arquette as a tough gator farm owner and Christopher Walken as a tap-dancing janitor hiding in the Witness Protection Program are little more than distractions, serving no other purpose than to round out a cast of characters already overloaded on quirks. Walken’s appearance in this movie came early on in his “unlikely cameo” career, but by now, putting his creepy tough guy act into a broad comedy is all too predictable. To her credit, Jaime Pressley’s incredibly brief role as a gum-smacking seductress cements her reputation as the go-to girl for trailer trash temptation, and a love scene with Spade that jokingly flirts with the idea of incest is one of the movie’s truly funny moments. It’s a shame that’s the sum total of her contribution, especially given the flavorless scenes (beyond an adolescent fascination with her assets) featuring the milquetoast Daniel.
In the end, Joe Dirt has little to recommend it beyond a desire to see Spade get crapped on, an audience expectation which Spade all too gleefully meets again and again in his movie roles. It says a lot about Spade as a comedy writer and actor that—equipped as he is with a rapier wit—his best hope of winning the adoration of the public at large is to turn against himself, either by playing the unlikeable foil to a loveable jackass or by turning himself into said jackass with the help of a bad wig and a funny accent. Of course, it says plenty that we as Americans would prefer to see the uneducated losers triumph again and again. Joe Dirt is America, after all: boorish and unstoppable, and falling ass-first through history.