A clear attempt to broaden David Spade’s box office appeal beyond the male teen demo, “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” generally succeeds — in hit-and-miss fashion — at bridging the gap between unlikable jerk and misunderstood good guy, though it’s still something of a leap to leading-man territory.
It may not be ringing praise, but the Sam Weisman-helmed comedy stands heads and shoulders above 2001’s dismal “Joe Dirt.”
The tale of a one-time A-list moppet consumed with making a comeback is in many ways an ideal vehicle for Spade’s particular — some might say unfathomable — brand of snide deadpan humor. Scripted by Spade and longtime “SNL” writer Fred Wolf, his creative partner on “Joe Dirt,” the film has an irreverent affection for the cult of TV celebrity, and the presence of dozens of real-life former child stars is a definite hook, however slim. There’s the added trivia allure of a raucous end-credits sing-along featuring said FCSs. “Roberts” should eke out middling returns before segueing to video.
As the title makes clear, the film centers on a character stuck in his past. Dickie Roberts’ life fell apart after the network canceled his ’70s hit series and he was abandoned by his single mom (Doris Roberts in a brief but vivid turn as a monster of a stage mother). An overgrown, obnoxious kid who had a career instead of a childhood, he believes screen success is the only way to regain self-respect and contentment.
He lives in Hollywood — the middle-class neighborhood, not the pampered, rarefied lifestyle; the closest he gets to the latter is his job as a valet at Morton’s. His desperate attempts to get back in the spotlight only add to his humiliation, and his girlfriend (Alyssa Milano, an FCS in her own right) dumps him. During their regular poker games, he and his pals — former child stars Leif Garrett, Barry Williams, Danny Bonaduce, Corey Feldman and Dustin Diamond — dis movie stars, and, in a nice touch, Williams continually antes up “Brady Bunch” memorabilia.
The film wades through tired in-joke territory (Dickie searches for famous actors at AA meetings) and some thuddingly laughless stretches before finding its tentative footing. The final segments are some of the strongest; a more consistent satiric slant on the star-making machinery would have benefited the film as a whole.
Tipped to a juicy role in a Rob Reiner film, Dickie and his agent (Jon Lovitz) — who compensates for ineptitude with an unsurpassed willingness to put it all on the line for his client — get busy trying to arrange a meeting with the director. But it’s Brendan Fraser (uncredited) who gets him in the door, even though Dickie mispronounces his name.
Determined to prove to the doubting Reiner that he can handle a role requiring firsthand experience of human emotions, Dickie sets out to fill in the missing part of his stunted life: childhood. After raising some cash from the sale of his sordid memoirs, he embarks on a crash course in being a kid, finding a family willing to show him the ropes for $20,000. The joke is that he lands in a suburban idyll straight out of a sitcom, with a dazzlingly good-looking mom and dad (Mary McCormack and Craig Bierko) and two kids (Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd) who are wholesome and down-to-earth.
As the story wends its way toward vague homilies — it’s not the fame and money Dickie misses but the love and adoration — there’s a realistic dynamic between Spade and the kids. McCormack is fine as the sensible and sexy, too-good-to-be-true mom, but the supposed chemistry between Dickie and Grace is pushing things a bit. To its credit, the technically polished film doesn’t try too hard to have it both ways — comic and earnest — and almost always undercuts the sappy moments with insolence.