David Spade movies are pathetic by definition. Or more precisely, they repeatedly interrogate the concept of pathetic-ness, what it means to be considered pathetic. In films like Black Sheep (1996) or Joe Dirt (2001), or even his long running sitcom, Just Shoot Me, Spade engages in said interrogation. His character, always some spin on his so-snarky SNL persona, gripes about his pathetic life, the pathetic world, and the especially pathetic circumstance wherein he appears to be the only participant with a sensibility ironic enough to recognize just how pathetic it all is.
Spade’s latest filmic adventure, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, is more of the same. Co-produced by fellow SNL alumnus Adam Sandler, it follows the efforts of Dickie (a cute blond kid who grows up into Spadeness) as he attempts to recover his career — or, as he puts it, recover the “love” he experienced when he was a child star. Not only did he “feel” the affection of his fans, he gushes, but he also felt loved by his obnoxious mom (Doris Roberts in an angry E! True Hollywood Story interview), who “left him” once the money dried up, way back when. He tells this tale, not incidentally, during his weekly card game with the other former child stars — Leif Garrett, Barry Williams, Danny Bonaduce, Screech, and one of the Coreys — who commiserate with him for a minute, then wish him all the best on that audition he’s got with Rob Reiner.
This new role will supposedly make everything right — no more parking cars, no more missing his trashy girlfriend Cyndi (Alyssa Milano), no more conniving with his fellow has-beens, no more missing his miserable mom. If only, as Reiner puts it, Dickie might be able to call on a “normal” childhood for reference. But he’s so distinctly abnormal (wearing gloves 24 hours a day, wearing the approximately same smirk and hairstyle as when he was a child) that there’s little chance that Dickie will be able to make this leap into imaginative banality. It’s just too much for his addled brain to wrap around.
And so he comes on the sort of plan that props up this sort of movie: he sells his apparently long-awaited autobiography, minus the juicy sex bits, and uses the cash to hire a family, with whom he will relive his childhood (for a month), or rather, live one that doesn’t include learning feeble punchlines (his personal signature is “That’s nucking futs!” and he’s asked to repeat it by every civilian who spots him), mugging for publicity shots, doing drugs, and sleeping with his costars. The new arrangement means that Dickie/Spade gets to behave badly while remarking on the pathetic normalcy of his well-remunerated hosts.
These are comprised of greedy car salesman dad George (Craig Bierko), ideal mom Grace (Mary McCormack), brother Sam (Scott Terra), and cute little sister Sally (Jenna Boyd). Indeed, mom is so very ideal that Dickie comes up with the best compliment anyone’s ever paid her (or so she says), “They don’t write moms as good as you!” (Speaking of sitcom writing, everyone in this family except George is blond like Dickie, so it’s not hard to guess how it all falls out.) While Grace is pleasantly clueless (though properly appalled when he announces “I love all this normal crap!”) and dad is missing in action, Sam and Sally immediately recognize Dickie as a loser and banish him to their abandoned tree house. No matter: he turns it into a happening place with disco ball and “Burning Inferno” on the suddenly installed stereo system (it’s so great when normal life works like a tv show), and the kids are appropriately wowed.
This bonding moment leads to more, and soon, Dickie is dissing the bullies who pick on Sam (calling them “piggy,” like it’s a great triumph), showing Sam how to seduce the beautiful new neighbor girl, the strangely named Barbie (Ambyr Childers), and teaching Sally the most terrific choreography for her pep squad tryouts. Her routine is tres PG, as opposed to her rival’s Britney-esque business; when Sally wins the day, the message appears to be that, for all Dickie’s loud complaints about his own experience, it’s better than what today’s “kids” endure. Grace and the kids also make a point of teaching Dickie the joy of getting a new bike on Christmas morning, so that he’s able to nail the audition. Yay for him.
As Dickie gets to rethink his childhood while also making current kids feel like their lives are “crap,” he also finds a way to rearrange his so-called adult life. By far the weirdest turn the film takes involves Dickie and his surrogate mother Grace. Early on, he observes to Sam and Sally (with whom he shares a bedroom) that “mom” is “hot,” and while this grosses them out no end, the film yuckily maneuvers the relationship so that his incestuous yearnings — and hers, I suppose — are all right. After all, that’s what stardom is all about, feeling loved.
But Dickie Roberts can’t even let this perversely fuzzy finale rest. While you’re left to imagine just how odd the new family might be offscreen, the end credits delivers what the rest of the film is really about — the rage that former child stars feel toward the idiot fans who can’t understand that they are no longer the cardboard kiddies who appear endlessly in Nick and other reruns. A passel of these ex-stars — Joanie, the boys and Marsha from The Brady Bunch, Rerun and Raj, Wally Cleaver, one of My Three Sons — join for a “We Are the World”-style singalong, in a song that details their frustrations, one being the fact that Michael Jackson gives them all a bad name by sleeping with chimps. If only the rest of Dickie Roberts had been so focused.