Judge Brett Cullum says you don't have to be rich and white to enjoy this film—but it helps.
[Dick and Jane are robbing the phone company as the customers cheer]
Fun With Dick and Jane is a black comedy rife with social satire, so it won't be to everyone's liking. I'm surprised the current Hollywood remake was considered a good idea. But thirty years later we live in an age where corporate irresponsibility has hit new highs, and once again the theme of yuppie angst is appropriate. Thanks to Enron and Worldcom, the idea of the upper middle class resorting to a crime spree as an answer to corporate woes isn't far off anyone's list of believable subjects. Here in Houston, I swear I've seen ex-Enron CEO Ken Lay and his wife knocking off liquor stores here and there. Can't say that I have screened the latest version of this story, starring Tea Leoni and Jim Carrey, but I can tell you whether the original 1976 Fun With Dick and Jane, starring Jane Fonda and George Segal, is worth checking out on DVD.
Facts of the Case
See Dick? He's a good boy who grew up to be a successful aerospace engineer.
See Jane? She's an attractive housewife with a degree in psychology.
Dick and Jane live beyond their means in a huge house. They're putting in a pool.
Poor Dick. He lost his job at the aerospace company because of a recession.
Poor Jane. She thinks turning off the heat in their new pool is "cutting back."
They won't do well without any money coming in.
See Dick? He's learning the unemployment system and food stamps have serpentine rules, and he is in financial ruin.
See Jane? She's learning that making a living is hard work, and her father won't help her.
Dick and Jane are in a jam. They decide to turn to a life of crime.
See Dick and Jane run all over town robbing people they think deserve it.
Dick and Jane aren't very good after all, are they? They like being bad, and they find out they are really good at it.
Dick and Jane have a bright future don't they? But for now…
See Dick and Jane rob and run.
In 1976 the nation was facing a recession, and the future of America's middle class was being questioned. The makers of Fun With Dick and Jane set out to make a playful satire about a pair of upwardly mobile white people suddenly faced with the very real threat of poverty. Jane Fonda (Monster-In-Law) and George Segal (Just Shoot Me) play Dick and Jane Harper, and their characters are hardly lovable. We like them; however, they do contemptible things like robbing businesses, and not showing…shall we say…a lot of grace towards minorities or people with less than they have. It's hard for anyone who has ever dined on Ramen noodles, or had to drive a car older than 2 years from the current model, not to scream "Die Yuppie scum!" at the television. How are we supposed to feel sorry for people that have so much? It's like asking me to feel sorry for Paris Hilton when she doesn't get a new dress.
But sorry isn't what we're really supposed to feel for Dick and Jane. Even the filmmakers, deep down, know this. We're supposed to laugh, and then feel guilty that we get so much glee out of the Harpers' willingness to do anything to stay at the level they have achieved. The agenda of the film is to expose the class system in America for what it is—a sharp division between the haves and have-nots driven by consumer goods. Pretty cars, big houses, and affluent status symbols are damn silly things to make your life revolve around. And yet most of us would steal—if we could get away with it—to acquire these things.
Pretty strong stuff for a comedy to deal with. I wish I could say Fun With Dick and Jane does this successfully, but it hovers in that classic '70s way—threatening to bare its true teeth, then backing down with a silly sitcom cop-out to keep from going where it logically should go. It's just not as vicious as it should be, and doesn't drive home any real social criticism. Dick and Jane never learn anything (other than how to be expert safe crackers), and they never get any comeuppance for all their dastardly adventures. Even though they make horrible robbers at first, soon they are criminal masterminds like Bonnie and Clyde without much difficulty. Yuppies are unkillable, and Fun With Dick and Jane loves them wholeheartedly. Show this at the country club and you'll get people slapping their knees with laughter; show this at the welfare office and you'll have to duck all the government cheese being hurled at the screen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What the movie does offer is a pair of brilliant comedic performances. I'm no fan of Jane Fonda's Vietnam politics, nor have I ever been able to stomach her turn as a fitness guru, but she can pull out a great comedy character with the best of them. She's hilarious when she's failing at being a fashion model, and genuinely cool as a wannabe gangster. She can lob stinging insults at the drop of a hat like a pro. She rocks in this movie, and she doesn't look bad in a bikini either. George Segal is a little less flashy, but he's got full-on slapstick skills in this flick as well. He's playing a hopeless twit, but he does it with a calm, cool panache that comes off well. He's just an average Joe stuck in a desperate situation, and he radiates an "aw shucks" demeanor. I'm actually intrigued with seeing Jim Carrey in the remake—because he is the antithesis of George Segal, who never mugs or makes rubbery faces. Dick and Jane are the reason this film is so much fun. Fonda and Segal make holding up liquor stores and x-rated motels look like a gas.
The supporting cast is also quite capable of inspiring giggles. I have to mention that Ed McMahon (The Tonight Show) gets a star turn in this film. I never knew old Ed did much of anything other than sit next to Johnny Carson and host amateur talent shows. He's kind of brilliant playing a smarmy aerospace CEO. Who knew the man was so funny, or that he could actually act? (There is hope for Andy Richter after all…) Most of the other bit players are unrecognizable names, but they are authentic and appropriately silly. I loved the gay unemployment officer, the hungry food stamps technician, and the Hispanic custodian recently fired from the same aerospace firm, who shows Dick the ropes of scamming the system.
The DVD is rather lacking, and follows the same treatment Sony has given a couple of the other old Columbia Pictures catalogue films. You'd think since the movie is coming out as a remake, we'd get a couple of extra features. We do get the requisite "preview" of the new version, but that's it. The transfer alternates between "riddled with grain" and "clear but with edge enhancement." I had hopes it would be fine after sitting through a snowy credit sequence and seeing things clear up, but the grain reappeared in many sequences. It almost looks as if two prints were used to assemble this lackluster visual transfer. The stereo audio track sounds tinny and monaural. Typical of '70s movies, the colors are pastel and the image is soft throughout, as if it were shot through a layer of gauze. This is VHS quality product on the DVD format, and seems a real shame for fans of the film.
It's a satire that could only be loved by the subjects of its criticism, but it does have great performances. Suffice it to say that as a comedy, Fun With Dick and Jane succeeds very well, even if as social commentary it seems a little light. It's not quite the black comedy of manners it aspires to be, but there's a lot to recommend the film. Fonda and Segal save the day with some brilliant comedy moments, and the script is tight and buoyant and filled with colorful support from the bit players.
Guilty of being a blue collar comedy parading as a white collar satire, Fun With Dick and Jane is guilty of staying true to its title.
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