My wife and I are expecting our first child in November, and one question looms above all others as we prepare for the blessed event: How are we going to pay for all of this? I make a solid living and have not been sued by a major credit-card company in over a year. I am lucky to have good insurance and a wife who works, but it’s hard not to look at the decades ahead and wonder how we will be able to afford daycare, schools, summer camps, clothes, college, and all the other components of middle-class American life.
I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing a little soul-shaking dread over the economics of first-time parenthood. Children aren’t necessary for life in the U.S. to seem prohibitively expensive, but they do add an additional element of urgency and gravity to the situation. I’ve been in such dire financial straits that I was willing to do anything to make money as long as it was legal, and if the money was good enough, legality might not even be that important. In that respect, the 1977 action-comedy Fun With Dick And Jane has a brilliant premise, one that taps into the free-floating sense of fear that it’s impossible to keep up with the Joneses without resorting to criminality.
The original film follows an upper-middle-class couple played by George Segal and Jane Fonda, who resort to armed robbery after losing their cushy jobs. Directed by journeyman Ted Kotcheff (Weekend At Bernie’s), the film is notable largely for its squandered potential. It’s smug, condescending, and mean, while containing the germ of a brilliant idea that might have flowered in more capable hands. So when the film was remade in 2005, I was more than cautiously optimistic. This was an opportunity to address a deep strain of economic insecurity coursing through our country, one that found particularly pure expression around the time the film takes place—in 2000, shortly after the Internet bubble burst. It could have been funny, insightful, and even cathartic. It should have provided a chance to laugh at the things that keep people like myself up at night, and comment on the way the roller-coaster movements of an economy nobody really seems to understand can drive us crazy.
I wasn’t overjoyed that Jim Carrey was headlining the remake (which made more than $110 million in American theaters alone), but encouraged to see the screenplay would be written by Judd Apatow (and his protégé Nicholas Stoller), who had released his breakout film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, earlier that year, and had script-doctored and produced one of Carrey’s best and most daring films, The Cable Guy. Furthermore, just a year earlier, Carrey delivered a career-best performance in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It seems like the moment Carrey signed on, however, it became a “Jim Carrey movie,” not a movie Carrey acted in, like Eternal Sunshine or Man On The Moon or The Cable Guy. Apatow, Stoller, and director Dean Parisot consequently got the job of servicing the star. Their task wasn’t to push Carrey out of his comfort zone and get him to deliver a textured performance as a complicated, fascinating character, as Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman did in Eternal Sunshine. Their job was to provide a context for Jim Carrey to do what he does in movies that earn him and studios lots of money: make goofy faces, talk in crazy voices, and contort his body like a meth-addled clown:
In Fun With Dick And Jane, Carrey never seems fully, or even mostly, human. He’s more like a cartoon character, or an alien pretending to be a human being, and overdoing the cheerfulness to a disturbing extent. It might just be that Carrey is too much of a movie star to be believable as a run-of-the-mill human being ever again. It’s the same problem Jack Nicholson has: Stephen King famously complained that Nicholson’s persona broadcast his descent into craziness in The Shining, and it’s similarly counterproductive to cast Carrey as a man driven nutty by a brutal economic downturn when he seems like he’s already a kook the first time we see him.
Carrey, his rubber limbs, and an unnerving rictus of inexplicable delight star in the lead role of Dick Harper (or as his Hispanic nanny refers to him throughout the film, “Mr. Retard”), a goony corporate-ladder climber who begins the film convinced he’s destined for a big promotion at Globodyne, the massive international corporation where he works. If decades of film-watching have taught me anything, it’s that protagonists who begin a movie moony over an imminent promotion are destined to spend the rest of the film either dealing with the “Monkey’s Paw”-style unwanted consequences of getting that promotion, or the equally unfortunate consequences of getting passed over.
Sure enough, Dick is promoted to VP of communications, and soon winds up on a Moneyline-style show where he’s ambushed by the host and special guest Ralph Nader (played stiffly and unconvincingly by Ralph Nader, which is all the more remarkable, considering that stiffness is the essence of his whole public persona) about the corporate malfeasance of Globodyne’s crooked CEO, Jack McCallister (Alex Baldwin). By the end of Dick’s appearance, Globodyne’s stock has become worthless. Soon, the company has declared bankruptcy, and emptied out its employees’ pensions in the process.
The newly unemployed Dick is dispirited, and the filmmakers convey his listlessness and lack of direction by having him leap acrobatically around the house to the mellow sounds of Sublime’s “What I Got,” which is exactly what a depressed corporate mouthpiece would do when sad, assuming he was actually a manic physical comedian renowned for his rubber-limbed shenanigans.
After months of unemployment, Dick is overjoyed to get an interview with a rival tech company, but upon arrival, he’s horrified to see Oz Peterson (Carlos Jacott), one of his old corporate rivals from Globodyne. Oz, eager to get the competitive advantage, kicks Dick in the nuts. When Dick races ahead of his competitors, he sprays Oz with a fire extinguisher and throws water-cooler bottles at him to try to trip him up. Dick gets to the interview ahead of Oz, only to discover a long line of people ahead of him who presumably did not need to physically assault other applicants to get a competitive advantage. It’s the kind of gag that might play better in an episode of Family Guy, where the joke would be the absurdity of men in business suits pummeling each other to get to a job interview first. But live-action movies play by different rules, and Fun With Dick And Jane has a Kung-Fu Hustle/Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World-level disconnect from reality, without an equivalent sense of fun or invention.
There are a couple of inspired moments hinting at the smarter, more insightful comedy that might have been if Fun With Dick And Jane were devoted to anything other than showcasing Carrey’s unique skill set. Before the bottom falls out, Dick and Jane, being terminally boring upper-middle-class married people, decide to have sex the upcoming Saturday, after first stocking up on candles and acquiring a sampler from Starbucks featuring the sensual sounds of Sade. And after bottoming out, Dick gets drunk and humiliates himself at his fancy country club, where a waiter matter-of-factly confides that since the economy tanked, such displays are a common occurrence, and that Dick’s psychotic tantrum ranks among the milder displays of insanity. The closest Fun With Dick And Jane comes to satire is its suggestion that the criminal mania gripping the title couple is fairly widespread, and that many of Globodyne’s former employees have slipped outside of the law in their quest to pay the bills. But even that feels, if not completely toothless, then distinctly on the soft-boiled side.
The makers of Fun With Dick And Jane apparently decided that the only way to make a movie where upper-middle-class white parents commit a series of violent crimes palatable for a mass audience would be for the film to take the form of a mindlessly upbeat live-action cartoon. It’s a testament to how unmemorable Fun With Dick And Jane is—despite grossing more than $200 million worldwide—that I had completely forgotten that the couple had a son—a blown opportunity, since having a child would inherently up the film’s stakes. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why I forgot the son, since the filmmakers do as well, for long stretches of time. Hell, Dick and Jane seem to forget they have a son, even though early in the film, Jane (Teá Leoni) ostensibly quits her job as a travel agent to spend more time with her child. The kid has maybe has three minutes of screen time, and is almost never mentioned when he isn’t onscreen.
Maybe if the film spent more time with the child, it would cast the protagonists’ actions in a darker light. If the son were anything more than a cute little prop saying adorable things in an incongruous Spanish accent in the background of a few scenes, we might start thinking about the boy having to visit his father and mother in prison, or worse, his future compromised by their recklessness and criminality. If Fun With Dick And Jane were to address the way parenthood and economic anxiety affect each other in any real or substantive way, it might compromise the film’s status as pure escapism, a mindless vacation at the movies. Fun With Dick And Jane eschews comedy based in any recognizable reality, but it also deliberately eschews satire for slick, pandering popcorn mindlessness.
The film is at least slickly efficient in its storytelling. The first act is devoted to Dick’s professional disgrace and his inability to get a job that doesn’t involve getting sassed by customers at a Walmart-style big-box store. The second act is devoted to Dick and Jane’s decision to reinvent themselves as shockingly accomplished criminals who rob a series of bad guys while wearing outrageous disguises. For example, during one robbery, the flamboyant couple dress as Sonny and Cher, only, get this, Dick is dressed as Cher and Jane as Sonny, because c’mon, you’re not going to cast Carrey—once one of Las Vegas’ top impressionists—as lead in a film without letting him indulge in a Cher tongue-waggle, right? You wouldn’t want to deprive viewers of the cheap buzz of recognition that comes with your heroes (or antiheroes, or whatever, since nothing anyone does is of any consequence) commiting theft while dressed as the Blues Brothers, would you?
The wacky robberies net the couple enough money to transform their desperate husk of a home back into a sprawling mansion. Then in the third act, the robberies subside, giving the couple an excuse to pull one last caper, this time an insanely complicated switcheroo involving Dick’s crooked former boss. The couple tricks Jack McCallister into personally funding the bankrupted pension plan of the company he destroyed, allowing Fun With Dick And Jane to pat itself on the back for having the brass cojones to boldly take a stand against the terrible people ruining everyone’s life with their unforgivable greed.
Fun With Dick And Jane closes with Dick, Jane, and the son we’ve spent a good three minutes getting to know driving happily off into the distance, when Dick sees a man he tried to hold up earlier in the film, who says he’s “…hooked up with a new company! Great benefits! Yeah. They trade energy! It’s called Enron.” Then the end credits begin by thanking Kenny Lay, Enron, and the principals of other companies whose duplicity inspired the film. Even if Fun With Dick And Jane were sharper, this would reek of noxious self-aggrandizement. Considering the toothlessness of the non-satire, it seems much worse than that; it feels disingenuous and dishonest. The filmmakers lazily give themselves too much credit for a level of satire they never even aspire to, let alone attain.
Fun With Dick And Jane connected with audiences enough to be the 18th highest-grossing film of 2005, with a domestic gross that put it just above Apatow’s other project of the year, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. So while the film purposefully avoids saying anything satirical about the capitalism or corporate greed, it at least offered people whose pensions had been fleeced by the likes of Kenneth Lay the cathartic opportunity to see a man who makes $20 million a movie pretend to strike a blow against corporate stooges for the benefit of the imaginary workers of a fictional company that doesn’t even exist by the end of the film. That is the essence of the film’s movie magic: It embodies such a preposterous world of pure fantasy that it never honestly addresses the soul-shaking dread that should be at its core.
Oh well. Perhaps the third time this weirdly timely, weirdly timeless tale gets told—say, following the economic crash of 2027, when the robot-aliens in power decide to downsize the lot of us—it will finally succeed in realizing at least a fraction of its endless wasted potential.
Up next: Indecent Proposal