Trailer Trash, Wig Wearin', Acid Wash Jean Lovin', Rock Concert T-Shirt Sportin' Hero.
During Franco's fascist regime in Spain, a visiting American asked his friend, a noted Spanish intellectual and writer, what he truly thought about Franco. The Spaniard looked around nervously, fearing for his life. He led the American out the back door of the restaurant, into a dark alley, looking over their shoulders the whole time. The pair carefully made their way down to the waterfront, found an old rowboat, and rowed out a few hundred yards. Finally satisfied that they were completely alone, with no other souls in earshot, the Spaniard leaned forward and whispered:
I like him..
That is how I feel about Joe Dirt.
Facts of the Case
Joe Dirt (Spade) is your typical white trash redneck, stuck in a time warp somewhere between 1975 and 1985. He drives a decrepit 1969 Dodge Daytona (a close cousin to the Charger, AKA the "General Lee") with none of the body parts painted the same color. He works as a janitor in a radio station in Los Angeles, and lives in the boiler room. He wears his hair in the perpetually trashy look known as a mullet; we learn later on that this is not his real hair, but rather a wig that his parents gave him to cover up an unsightly birth defect in his skull. Later in life the defect healed, making the wig a permanent part of Joe's head in the process.
One day he is discovered by local shock jock Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller—Murder At 1600, Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football). Zander has a radio show that specializes in exploiting and ridiculing various freaks and societal outcasts, and to him Joe is "manna from inbred heaven." Zander gets Joe into the studio and coaxes him into telling his life story on the air.
And what a story it is! Abandoned by his parents at the Grand Canyon when he was eight, Joe has been on a lifelong quest to find his home and family. His journey takes him all across the country. Joe encounters a "meteor" dropped by a passing 747. He meets up with Brandy (Brittany Daniel—The Basketball Diaries, Dawson's Creek), a home-grown hottie with a heart of gold.
But, as Joe dutifully tells Zander, he has a mission in life to find his home and his parents. Joe sets out across the country, looking for clues. Along the way he stops and takes occasional odd jobs so that he has money to continue his quest. He finds work as a roughneck on an oilrig, as a gator wrangler in a tourist trap gator farm, and wearing a sandwich board for a dental office. His trip also includes a perilous detour to visit a transvestite cannibal. Joe gives sound business advice to an Indian named Kicking Wing (Adam Beach—Smoke Signals, Mystery, Alaska) whose fireworks stand is on the verge of ruin. Joe also meets a mentor of his own, a junior high janitor named Clem (Christopher Walken—Pulp Fiction) who makes Joe a hero.
As Joe tells his story to Zander on the air, more and more people become enthralled with his tale, a sort of Forrest Gump story for the trailer park set. Finally, Joe receives word that his parents are alive in California. Will his reunion with them answer his lifelong questions, or will it send him back to Brandy and the only real home he has ever known?
I usually can't stand David Spade. His on-screen persona is generally snide and mean-spirited, and usually not very funny at all. I steeled myself against his presence as I slid this disc into my player. And, after waiting and waiting for the pain that never came, I came to a jarring realization: David Spade is playing a nice guy in this movie. Sure, he's the embodiment of every white trash stereotype known to man, but he's got a good heart and doesn't mean anyone any harm. Spade actually does some pretty good acting in this film. Granted, some of it is manufactured with well-timed camera moves and musical cues, but in the midst of all the craziness Spade actually brings some sensitivity to Joe, and makes him a character the audience cares about by the end of the movie. Through Spade we see Joe Dirt as just a regular guy, not terribly bright, who just wants to find a place in this world where he belongs.
None of this would be possible were it not for some surprisingly good direction by first-time helmer Dennie Gordon. Gordon's previous experience is in television, directing episodes of Ally McBeal and The Practice. She made the transition to feature films quite smoothly. Joe Dirt is actually very well shot for what it is, and one can tell that Gordon put a lot of time and effort into the production and making everything look as good as her budget would allow.
Columbia TriStar has a mixed record lately when it comes to video transfer quality. Some releases, such as Tomcats, look terrible. On the other hand, we have Joe Dirt, which has a nice looking anamorphic transfer. (There is also a superfluous pan-and-scan option on the disc. Why that is, I don't know.) The picture is mostly sharp and clear, with solid blacks and crisp reds. Flesh tones are usually pretty good, but are noticeably pink in some scenes. There is a lot of background artifacting, but hey, this is a Columbia TriStar disc—what did you expect? The audio is a respectable Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that will blast Joe Dirt's classic rock soundtrack through all of your speakers. The sound is primarily focused across the front soundstage, but when rock oldies like Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" come roaring through, they sound great. There is also an A-bomb scene in Chapter 13 that makes very good use of your system's surround capabilities.
Columbia TriStar has assembled a nice collection of goodies in the extra content department. There are deleted/alternate scenes, three with optional director's comments and four without. We have a three-minute blooper/outtake reel which is quite funny. There are six filmographies, and trailers for Joe Dirt, Tomcats, Loser, Can't Hardly Wait, and Saving Silverman. As the piece de resistance, there are two commentary tracks. One features writer/actor Spade, and the other features director Dennie Gordon.
You may wonder what in the world there would be to talk about in two separate commentary tracks for Joe Dirt. When the disc arrived at my house and I saw the two tracks, I asked the same thing. As I listened to David Spade's commentary track, I set my teeth on edge, sure that the mean, evil David Spade would show up. Again, I was completely shocked. Spade comes across as laid back and actually rather pleasant in the commentary. Stranger still, as he tells stories of his youth in Arizona, he expresses something bordering on genuine affection for the Joe Dirts of the world, rather than the pure contempt I was expecting. Indeed, many of the people and details in Joe Dirt are based on Spade's memories of his younger years. Perhaps the most interesting (!) portions of the commentary track are those where Spade discusses the creative process that went into writing and making this movie. I was stunned—it never occurred to me that anyone would take the "creative process" for a movie like Joe Dirt seriously. I came away from Spade's commentary track with a much better appreciation of his comic sense and the process of making a movie like this one.
As amazing as that sounds, director Dennie Gordon's commentary track was fascinating as well. She made a point to concentrate on the real nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process; how she got certain shots, how the editing process worked, even which lenses she used and which film stocks she chose to shoot on. She detailed a lot of the battles necessary to get the movie to qualify as a PG-13. She also made probably the most profound comment I have heard regarding the making of a comedy when she stressed that comedy cannot exist in an emotional vacuum; the audience has to care about or at least like the characters before comedy will truly work. This simple statement blew me away; it should be tattooed on the forehead of anyone looking to make a comedy picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now, don't get me wrong. Just because I didn't hate Joe Dirt, and just because I found it to be a little amusing and endearing, doesn't mean I'm ready to set off across the country in a '69 Dodge or anything. Believe you me, all is not perfect in Dirtland. As usual it appears impossible to make a comedy these days without an excessive reliance on scatological, flatulence, and erection jokes. There are two scenes that revolve around dogs humping. There is a scene where Joe must win Brandy's heart by rescuing her dog Charlie, whose scrotum has become frozen to the porch. It's kind of funny, in a sick, surreal sort of way, but shows us far more than we really would want to see of such a predicament. There is a scene where Joe finds himself covered in human waste from what he thought was an A-bomb. (Okay, that last one is a little bit funny, but only because of David Spade. Wow, that's two things I never thought I would say, let alone in the same sentence.)
Looking at the bigger picture, Joe Dirt really doesn't hang together all that well. The various episodes in Joe's life are only loosely tied together, and some of them just don't work. For example, his stint at the gator ranch takes up very little screen time and does not do a good job of drawing the audience in; yet, out of the blue, this sequence contains one of the most important revelations in the movie. There are huge gaping chasms in the logic of the plot, which grow even worse as the movie works its way to the ending. When the ending comes, it is at once too bizarre and too conventional, and takes too long.
I really expected to hate this movie. I wanted to fill my review with steaming vitriol about what a cocky little dweeb David Spade is and how terrible it was that this movie ever got made. But, I just can't. I expected Joe Dirt to be a mean-spirited caricature of everyone who doesn't live in New York or Los Angeles. Given the people involved, it may have even been intended that way. However, through some bizarre cosmic accident of cinema, Joe Dirt turned out just as good-natured, dare I say even charming, as the title character. I'm still not sure if I can recommend this movie, but if you do check it out you might find it amusing.
Joe Dirt, both the film and the eponymous character, are free to go. Columbia TriStar is commended for a surprisingly good collection of extras.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Director Dennie Gordon Commentary
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