Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)


Fun with Dick and Jane
Dir. Ted Kotcheff
Premiered February 9, 1977

To the modern viewer, Fun with Dick and Jane is a film out of time.

I never would have reviewed it but for its 2005 remake, a film that was noted for coming out before the Great Recession and necessarily losing its poignancy in the process. The 1977 original seems similarly misplaced. A film about gauche, upwardly mobile yuppies losing everything, resorting to crime, and maybe learning a little bit about how the other half lives fits in just fine in the 1930s, or the 2000s, or even the 1980s. But the ‘70s? The earth-toned, Volkswagen-driving, peanut farmer-electing, Good Times and All in the Family-watching ‘70s?

Of course, it’s easy to say that in retrospect. The ‘70s weren’t really a decade of universal proletarianism anymore than the 2010s are a decade of universal neo-modern dapperness, so maybe Fun With Dick and Jane could work. But as it is, the film doesn’t dispell my misapprehensions about when it was made.

Fun with Dick and Jane begins with middle-aged aerospace engineer Dick Harper (George Segal) getting laid off in a very flippant manner by his souse boss (Ed McMahon). He’s at the top of his game, but lacks the seniority to stay on board. Suddenly bereft of the finer things in life, wife Jane (Jane Fonda) encourages Dick to take advantage of the welfare state with the help of a former co-worker (Hank Garcia) while both of them look for work. But those who enforce the social safety net don’t take kindly to the Harpers’ bourgeois lifestyle, nor do prospective employers look kindly on their diminishing fortunes. Refusing to let the middle-class decline, and with it America, the two decide to start a new career in larceny, taking on a series of increasingly audacious robberies.

I will say this: at least the film demonstrates that the protagonists are jerks, victims and perpetrators alike of casual racism, elitism, and transphobia whose prejudices do them no favors when they don’t have the cash to insulate themselves from the rest of the world– strikingly progressive for its time. The story is a caustic tale of degeneracy and decline, an invocation against greed and materialism with a happy face. It should work, but the presentation is off-base. The humor is too dry and catty, fine between friends and or perhaps on television, but unengaging in a feature film. George Segal makes an effort, but he’s too naturally easygoing for the role, ever the clueless dad, and his performance comes off as leaden. Jane Fonda is…Jane Fonda. I’ve never bought her in anything, and like Segal, her energy here is too low. The best laughs come from a handful of bit players, but the leads aren’t interesting to root for or against– the latter being the film’s intent.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but the riches-to-rags story usually involves the humbled main characters learning a lesson about what really matters. Fun With Dick and Jane has no such realization. They keep being greedy jerks until they get their way. It’s meant to be a cruel joke, a parting shot at the corruption of the American dream, but the final product plays it way too safe for such a conclusion to land effectively.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
A running theme throughout the film is the decline of the aerospace industry following the end of the space race. These people are going to shit themselves when the Cold War ends. Or maybe go on a violent rampage across Los Angeles. Dick invokes the Bicentennial in his defense of the American Dream. The astrology craze is mined for some topical laughs. Among Dick and Jane’s marks is an ersatz Norman Vincent Peale.

Additional Notes
At one point, Dick runs down a hallway, past a random poster of Moshe Dayan. Why? And where can I get one?

How Did It Do?
Fun with Dick and Jane proved a hit with audiences, grossing $30 million against a $3 million budget, but was middlingly received by critics, who mostly found it too dull and safe for its own premise, earning a 60% rating on RottenTomatoes. In 2005, Galaxy Quest director Dean Parisot remade the film with a script by Hollywood kingmakers Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller and starring Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni. In many ways, Carrey seems to me a better fit than Segal, but his salary massively inflated the film’s budget to the point that it barely broke even, despite being one of the highest-grossing films of that year, and critics hated it.

If you were interested in a movie like Fun with Dick and Jane, there are a couple of movies, made not long after, that I’d recommend.

1. 9-to-5. Not my favorite movie, due mostly to the involvement of Jane Fonda, but the other leads are a lot funnier, the plot is knowingly absurd, and the villain is more than a minor character.

2. Trading Places. Directed by John Landis of Animal House fame, it’s a lot funnier than this movie, the characters actually grow to be likable, and it has something real to say about greed and materialism without descending into heavy-handedness.

Next Time: Wizards


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