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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 7, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Dickie Roberts, Boswell, Biblical Fakes, and Fred Chappell

David Spade hasn't yet found his niche in movies, and he's getting kind of old not to have noticed what kind of comedy he's good at.

On Saturday Night Live, Spade was fine in sketches, but what we fell in love with him for was his "Hollywood Minute," in which he gave such hilariously savage commentary on the world of entertainment that he actually got in trouble for it. His stuff stung because it was both clever and true. No one else, not Dennis Miller, not Joan Rivers, not even Jim Mullen in Entertainment Weekly, has ever been as honest and funny and smart.

But the smart David Spade has been virtually invisible in his film and television work. As Dennis Quimby Finch on the series Just Shoot Me he had a few moments, but mostly he played a dweeb loser with delusions of coolness (i.e., Bob Hope's stock character) -- with an emphasis on a kind of "chiquesse grosse" that worked for Chris Farley, but not so well for Spade.

And the movies? Let's just say that Spade seems to think he's the same kind of comedian as Jon Lovitz. He's not.

For one thing, Spade can act. Yes, I know, it's a well-kept secret, and maybe Spade himself doesn't know it, but it's true. Most of the time he's just doing sketch comedy on screen, which means there's a layer of brittleness, a sort of you're-going-to-laugh-at-this-because-I'm-going-to-make-you attitude that keeps him from ever being real. (You know, the thing that keeps Martin Short or Dana Carvey from ever being able to create an actual character.)

But Spade can get past that, and not just by coasting on likeability. Spade is smart, and after years of working with actors, I'd rather work with a smart actor than an emotional one, because the smart ones can learn to do the emotion, but the emotional ones have a terrible time learning anything at all.

My proof is the second half of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.

The first half is just what you'd expect from Spade and his co-writer Fred Wolf, a former SNL writer who helped create such masterpieces as Black Sheep and Little Nicky. They rely on a lot of cameos, dumb sight gags, and people behaving repulsively. Especially vile is a brief appearance by Rachel Dratch as Rob Reiner's secretary, in the least funny sequence in the whole movie.

In fact, several times I was tempted to walk out of the show.

The thing only comes to life when, in an effort to learn how to be a human being so he can play a real character in a good movie, former child star Dickie Roberts hires a family to teach him what real life is like.

Mary McCormack, who first became famous for her wonderful work on the TV series Murder One, plays the mom, and Spade's leering is just what we'd expect.

But McCormack and the two kids, played by the astonishingly good Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd, set a tone of reality that changes the movie completely. Spade stays in sketch comedy mode for a while, but now it's working for instead of against the movie, because his self-indulgent phoniness is the character.

In the first part of the movie, Spade's phoniness was just like all the other actors -- nobody is real -- so it just looks like bad acting. But when he's thrust into this family, the contrast actually starts working.

The movie absolutely depends, however, on Spade being able to rise out of that brittle performance style and become real. And ... he does a reasonably good job of it.

Oh, sure, in one teary-eyed moment the camera lingers a little too long, making us wonder if the director and cinematographer and editor were all so stunned at a moment of honesty from an SNL alumnus that they just couldn't stop looking at it. The last lingering couple of seconds are overkill.

But it still works. Against all expectations, Dickie Roberts actually earns its heartwarming moments. (Unlike, say, the sickeningly exploitative ending of that Jack Black/Gwyneth Paltrow "comedy" Shallow Hal, which becomes so smarmy you wish you could find some tar and feathers for everyone involved with this vile "heartwarming" film.)

It isn't Spade, really, who carried it off -- it's McCormack, Terra, and Boyd. But Spade didn't wreck it the way Jack Black or Dana Carvey would have; he helped it.

You know what David Spade should be doing?

He should cut his hair, shave, and play smart grownups with biting wit. I could see him doing Thin Man-type movies. I could see him doing a remake of Our Man Godfrey. The Cary Grant part in Topper.

Yeah, I know. Spade has never done it, and I'm insane to see him that way.

But I have seen him that way from his first appearances on Saturday Night Live, and it's sad that nobody else has, because Spade could do it far more convincingly than the boorish parts he's been playing up to now. Spade should look at old Cary Grant movies and realize that what made Grant so good was not that he was handsome -- cleaned up, so is Spade, anyway -- but because Grant was a comedian who specialized in being cool and smart. It's hard to think of a Grant role that Spade could not do wonderfully well. And yes, I'm including Charade and Bringing Up Baby.

As for Dickie Roberts -- well, what can I say? The audience laughed at gags all the way through it -- including the credits, where they have a whole bunch of former child stars sing a long, bitter "We Are the World"-style response to all the fans who are brutally rude to them. Oddly enough, it's in this song that the only F-word in the movie is sung by Marcia Brady -- and it's truly funny, but if you don't want to hear it, leave the second the credits start.

And really, it's not a film for young kids. Sex jokes are rampant throughout, and some of them are appalling if you've got a nine-year-old sitting with you. Even a sixteen-year-old will probably squirm at some of the gags.

Plus, Alyssa Milano is disturbingly sexy as the vile ex-girlfriend who shows up at a key moment in the film. It's the first acting I've seen her do that showed talent -- but if you're a man, you have to be at least 52 years old to notice it, because any younger and talent will not be what's on your mind. Your sixteen-year-old son will see this movie -- but not with you.

Is this a rave? Is this a pan?

For me, the good parts were worth the bad parts, and truth to tell, the bad parts weren't all that bad. But let's face it, the best thing going for this movie is that it came out during a week that is truly a wasteland. I honestly believe this is far and away the best movie released last Friday. But as much could be said of slides of my family's vacation in 1965.

*

The modern biography -- the kind where it actually matters that you are accurate, that you do fact checking, that you show both the flaws and virtues of the person whose life you're recounting -- began with James Boswell's The Life of Dr. Johnson.

Samuel Johnson himself has recently been overshadowed by his biographer, for Johnson's style of writing, like that of Addison and Steele and other contemporaries, has fallen out of style. Elegance and wit have been replaced by bluntness and simplicity, and that isn't a bad thing, really; certainly I'm doing nothing to take us back to the more refined style of the 1700s.

When Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson first appeared, it was a hit -- but with an odd result. Boswell placed himself in the story, and to many he appeared to be such a toady, such a fool compared to the Great Man he was writing about, that nobody realized that a great biography is not just a matter of writing down witty things that a great man says. So as the reputation of Boswell's magnum opus soared, his own personal reputation became such a humiliation to his family that they hid his personal papers for centuries.

When the papers began seeping out, however, they gave proof of something that should have been obvious even to contemporaries: Boswell's achievement was at least as great as any achievement of Dr. Johnson's. Johnson invented the modern citation-based dictionary; Boswell invented the modern fact-based biography; and who is to say which is the greater achievement?

All of this is recounted in Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. This book isn't a biography of either Boswell or Johnson, though their lives are certainly part of the story. Rather it's more of a biography of Boswell's reputation along with a history of the book's progress from conception to its present stature as literature.

This should, of course, be quite boring, but it honestly isn't, not to someone who cares about how books fare in the world. Admittedly, I have a vested interest in such questions, but if you think my comments on the subject are intriguing, you will certainly enjoy Sisman's book. And if you skipped right over this section of my column, then you won't know or care what you're missing.

*

The current issue of Archaeology magazine has a thorough article about the recent fake "find" that was purported to be the ossuary of Jesus' brother James. It's a must-read for anyone who gets taken in by press reports -- the coverage of the "discovery" was far more widespread than the coverage of its debunking, and there are doubtless people who still believe that this "proof" of the New Testament is real.

It isn't, but what matters is how it became so famous (wishful thinking often keeps scholars and scientists from keeping the skeptical attitude that is the essence of their craft) and how it was debunked.

The odd thing is that "proof" that New Testament figures actually existed is hardly necessary. There is no particular reason to doubt the existence of any of the people mentioned in the New Testament -- we have no trouble accepting the existence of historical figures who receive less mention than in documents as ancient as the four gospels. The only reason people "doubt" their reality is because there's just as big an industry devoted to debunking religion as to supporting it. There is ample foolishness on both sides.

*

The current issue (Oct./Nov.) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has a wonderful story by our own Fred Chappell. Chappell's "Hooyoo Love" is not an adventure. It's rather the kind of thing that made me love David R. Bunch's and Felix Gottschalk's and some of Peter Dickinson's work -- brilliant and well-written social analysis with a satiric bent.

There are some other, deeply wonderful stories in the same issue. For instance, the always brilliant Terry Bisson has a story ("Almost Home") that is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury in his prime, a tale of some children who discover a strange aeroplane that transports them to an alternate version of their town, where they learn things about themselves and their own families and, incidentally, save a life.

Gene Wolfe's "Hunter Lake" is a story that I would have said couldn't be written -- a tale that turns out to be a dream (no, that does not wreck the story to tell you that -- he tells you all the way through) but still absolutely works.

And John Morressy's "The Artificer's Tale" contains almost a novel's worth of story about the ancient Greek hero Daedalus. If you've never picked up a science fiction magazine, it would be hard to think of a better place to start than this issue.

*

In closing, a note to the parents who were helping their adult son down the stairs to his wheelchair, in the Utah theater where we had just seen the 9:40 Friday night showing of Dickie Roberts:

I'm the guy who was standing there drinking a bottle of water after the credits. You looked at me and thought I was staring at your son, who because of brain damage or cerebral palsy was making very slow progress down the stairs. I made it a point to hold the door for you as you came out of the theater, and you gave me a smile.

But my interest wasn't what you think. I wasn't gawking. Your son reminded me of my own son, of how much I miss him, how all his life I longed to see him take even the faltering steps your son was taking. I saw the love you had for him, his strength and determination. I watched, not out of idle curiosity, but because he made me remember old longings and lost love.

But I couldn't say anything to you at the time, because my story ends without my son ever taking those steps, and that's not exactly a cheery thing to talk about after we'd all seen a pretty funny movie. You still have many happy days ahead. I just want you to know that not everybody who watches you is being rude. Some simply envy you and admire you and wish you well.


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