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Dickie Roberts,
Former Child Star

There comes a time in every actor's life when he has to shift gears and change his image. Otherwise, in today's celebrity-obsessed culture, he could end up on any one of cable's dozen shows devoted to the rise and hard fall of showbiz has-beens. One such subject, Leif Garrett, knows exactly what that's like, with a Behind The Music special so over-the-top tragic that it has become a paragon of the form.

So Garrett's performance should lend more heft or bite to David Spade's latest movie, Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star. But unfortunately, all the has-beens and perhaps never-wases get trotted out for quick laughs while the film revolves around an actor really trying to reinvent himself.

As a result, we've really got two films here. One is a dark and biting satire of those standing in the shadows of Hollywood's light, barred from a party they once hosted. The sequences there show some real promise, especially at a poker night with a group of "Where Are They Now?" regulars, complaining about the pretty boys who get all the work while ex-Greg Brady Barry Williams bets with replicas of the cursed tiki idol rather than real money.

Contrasting that sharpness, Spade and writing partner Fred Wolf have concocted what they hoped would be a heart-warming comedy about a man learning to connect with humanity. It's not a bad idea, necessarily, no worse than the drama in which Dickie Roberts is desperately trying to win the lead role - a Rob Reiner film called Mr. Baker's Backyard.

But just as Dickie's background as a child star has left him woefully unprepared to assay a real human being, so does Spade's snarky persona distance him from the role of Dickie. The script has no choice but to spell out all Dickie's dilemmas, because Spade cannot portray them.

When a heart-broken Dickie confesses "…I wear gloves twenty-four hours a day because I'm afraid of human contact," it's hollow. Conversely, he claims to not be able to look people in the eye because others might see there's nothing behind his own eyes. Sorry, but it's a lie. Spade always has something going on behind his eyes, usually preparing to deliver some zinger.

It's not that he's not funny, either. In small doses, such as the early years of Just Shoot Me, Spade stole the show by refusing to take it over. He's older now, and like Dickie, trying to transition into a phase with a little more longevity.

Neither Spade, Wolf, nor director Sam Weisman know how to carry on a narrative, though. All they know are short bits.

After a pretty amusing opening, the movie settles into a rhythm that barely remembers it has a plot. Midway through, Grace (Mary McCormack) exposes the flaw in the movie by telling Dickie he has no plan. He's just attacking the whole "reliving childhood" thing with random jabs. Hmm…just like a series of sketches with the same character, perhaps?

Subplots don't so much occur as just pop back up after you've forgotten about them. As Dickie's surrogate dad, Craig Bierko is reduced to mugging shamelessly to make the most of a thankless role; every time he affects the plot, it's in a story being told about him rather than featuring him. Former child star Alyssa Milano also weaves in and out, in a bit that makes no sense on more than one level. That's an achievement of some sort.

Giving the midsection some sort of weight, McCormack plays her role of "second mom" with a believable earnestness. She clearly loves her children, and for someone with movie star looks, she manages to have a parental bedraggledness. When romance looms because it must in these kinds of films, it's the one time that Weisman's off-camera developing of plot is a blessing. It would be too jarring to actually show McCormack have anything other than motherly affection for the manchild in her house.

For me, the worst sin this movie commits is to actually lift an internet joke/urban legend involving a neighbor's pet rabbit and turning it into the moment that everybody finally bonds. It wasn't really that funny the first five times somebody sent it to me.

Most of the film is diverting enough. Though it doesn't flow, there are fits and starts of laughs. At the end, it circles back around to being biting, which almost raises it a notch. The two different styles just don't mesh. And though this is nowhere near as bad as Joe Dirt or Spade's films with Farley, it's still not the movie that will give the comic the mainstream acceptance he so obviously wants.


Derek McCaw

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