Thursday, September 4, 2003

“Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,” a self-explanatory ID, leaves David Spade still groping for a trustworthy comic format. He probably was closer to an optimum comedy vehicle in “Lost & Found,” his first movie after an abbreviated partnership with the late Chris Farley. It envisioned him as a sneaky-funny restaurateur smitten with a gorgeous neighbor played by Sophie Marceau. That certainly was a more plausible masquerade than the one he assumed in “Joe Dirt” as a white-trash diamond in the rough.

“Dickie Roberts” tends to put its worst foot forward. A late arrival might do you and the star a favor. Dickie, once a popular brat on a television sitcom of the early to middle 1970s, is a struggling unemployed actor in the present. He has a loyal but rather slow-witted agent, Jon Lovitz as Sidney, a Hollywood variation on Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. Dickie gets to wear a uniform while parking cars at a fashionable restaurant. However, the roles he craves just aren’t there.

An early battery of sequences suggests that the role of Dickie itself could be booby-trapped. The first big slapstick interlude overreaches: He gets pounded mercilessly by Emmanuel Lewis during a freak boxing match between sitcom has-beens in Las Vegas. On the way home, Dickie jacks up his car to repair a flat, and it hurtles into a ravine. While he’s hitchhiking back, his girlfriend, Cyndi (Alyssa Milano), ditches him for a passing motorist. You get the idea Dickie is fortune’s fool, but the movie is also struggling for a comic foothold.

There’s a promising turn when Dickie learns from a buddy (Leif Garrett) that Rob Reiner is auditioning a new film. “It’s the talk of the town,” Mr. Garrett exclaims, giving the movie its first genuinely funny remark. An amiable stooge on this occasion, Mr. Reiner is also the subject of an inspired sick joke in the closing stages of the plot.

You may detect a pattern in the casting: Some people with vintage TV credentials pretend to play themselves while others are entrusted with fictional characters. When introduced to the hero’s poker bunch, dominated by Danny Bonaduce and including other sitcom alums supposedly doing self-portraits, it occurs to you that an ensemble approach to the theme of “former stardom” might have been a happier, multifaceted alternative.

Be that as it may, Dickie auditions for Rob, who tries to reject him kindly by saying that he needs an actor with some experience of normal family life. That kind of heritage eluded Dickie when he was a precocious youth exploited by his stage mom (Doris Roberts in a fleeting flashback).

He resolves to make up for lost time and places an advertisement offering to pay for the privilege of boarding with a genuine family. He’s taken up on it by an opportunistic auto dealer, Craig Bierko as George Finney, who has an attractive wife, Grace (Mary McCormack), and two bright youngsters, Sam and Sally (Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd, who flatter the tradition of juvenile actors far more than Dickie himself).

The balance of the movie attempts to demonstrate that once domiciled, Dickie has more to offer Grace and her children than George, written off as an expendable, adulterous jerk. Because Mr. Bierko is more in the nature of an armed and dangerous comic weapon (he was sensational in the Larry David farce “Sour Grapes”) than a mere prop, he needs to be squandered here in order to rationalize the fond notion that David Spade could top him as a family man.

Mr. Spade’s playful rapport with the youngsters becomes one of the movie’s strong points, but it never quite earns him a promotion from visiting overgrown playmate to desirable stepdad. Moreover, the film’s ultimate vision of bliss is actually a nightmare: Dickie, Grace, Sam and Sally as the cast of a popular new “reality” sitcom all their own.

Mr. Spade springs some funny surprises while bonding with the children, including a knack for simulating sound effects that recalls the bygone speciality of Michael Winslow. There’s a terrific gag with a champagne cork that targets Miss Milano, plus a couple of witty stunt sequences, one on stilts and another on bicycles.

The most talked-about sequence of “Dickie Roberts” may be the epilogue, which recruits about two dozen former sitcom or soap stalwarts for a mind-boggling choral number titled “Child Stars on Your Television.” Lyrics range from the caustic to the pathetic while purporting to express the frustrations of the once-famous.

Maureen McCormick, the erstwhile Marcia of “The Brady Bunch,” seems to have the biggest chip on her shoulder. Other participants include Gary Coleman, Tony Dow, Florence Henderson, Barry Livingston, Jay North, Marion Ross and Charlene Tilton. Mr. Spade also joins the chorus in scattered shots. For all one knows, they’ll be touring eventually as Dickie Roberts and the Bellyachers.


TITLE: “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, frequent comic vulgarity and occasional sexual and drug references)

CREDITS: Directed by Sam Weisman. Written by Fred Wolf and David Spade.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes


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