When you are at the height of fame on a television show or movie as a child, and then suddenly you hit puberty and can't get an acting gig to save your life, what becomes of you? For some, they turn to drugs. For others, they coast on their old celebrity status as if nothing has changed. And for 37-year-old Dickie Roberts (David Spade), whose career came crashing down at the age of six when his television sitcom got canceled, he is determined to reclaim his moment in the spotlight. Working as a valet driver in Hollywood and with a materialistic girlfriend, Cyndi (Alyssa Milano), Dickie catches wind of the auditions for a new Rob Reiner film and becomes obsessed with getting the part. Unfortunately, Reiner explains to Dickie that his casting is a long shot because he failed to experience a normal childhood. Unfaltered, Dickie puts an ad in the newspaper in which he will pay a family $20,000 if they will adopt him for a month and treat him like a child. That family comes in the form of a tight-knit mother, Grace (Mary McCormack), son Sam (Scott Terra), and daughter Sally (Jenna Boyd), and a distant father, George (Craig Bierko).
Directed by Sam Weisman (2001's "What's the Worst That Could Happen?
"), "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" is the latest project from Happy Madison Productions (home of such comedians as Adam Sandler, who produces, and Rob Schneider), and it is not particularly any better or worse than the average project from the company. For David Spade, however, it is a major step up from 2001's laughless "Joe Dirt
." While most of the physical comedy is lazy and predictable, such as a scene where Dickie crash-and-burns on a bicycle, what surrounds it is a surprisingly charming diversion with a rather clever premise. Spade may not be able to juggle slapstick and drama as convincingly as Sandler or Schneider, but it is a smart career choice, moving him away from the lower rungs of the formulaic studio comedy where he has puttered for so long and into something with just a little more substance than is the norm.
The film's in-jokes about the fleeting price of fame come fast and furious, with its most witty moments bookending the bulk of the story. An outlandish but ironically believable "E! True Hollywood Story" prologue is priceless, with Doris Roberts (TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond") making a cameo as Dickie's power-hungry stage mother. The end credits sequence is even more delightful, as a stream of real-life former child stars (see the cast listing above) stand on bleachers and sing a choral "We Are the World"-style song about being famous children. The song is increasingly crude and the scene itself curiously heartwarming, as the stars of yesterday stand united as they get the last laugh. Hearing Maureen McCormick (Marcia on "The Brady Bunch") drop the F-bomb in her solo may just be worth the price of admission.
The middle 85 minutes is an admitted mixed bag, but it offers up just enough good will and likable characters to make for an entertaining time. While the movie offers up a lot of small chuckles, it lacks any really big laughs. And while some of the dialogue is sharply written, other lines feel awkward and certain jokes are repeated too many times, becoming repetitive and outstaying their welcome (Dickie's childhood television persona's tagline, "It's Nucking Futs!" being one of them). Where it makes up for this, in a screenplay by Fred Wolf and David Spade, is the truth it holds on its subject of child stars who became has-been's overnight. One suspects watching it that the experiences Dickie has as the success he once had constantly eludes him isn't far off from what, say, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim (both appearing here, the former in a supporting role) have gone through.
In Dickie's burgeoning friendship with the family that adopts him is a sweet moral tale where both sides teach the other a thing or two about life. Weepy Hallmark moments arise in the climax once or twice, but they are thankfully more subdued than they could have been. As mother Grace, who is neglected by her husband and who is taught by Dickie how to stand up for herself, Mary McCormack (2002's "Full Frontal
") brings a tender depth to a role that probably wasn't written with as much precision. Scott Terra (2002's "Eight Legged Freaks
") and Jenna Boyd (2003's "The Hunted
") make for a solid team as brother and sister Sam and Sally, who share nice chemistry with Spade. Unfortunately, the undervalued Alyssa Milano (a former child star in her own right from TV''s "Who's the Boss") is stuck playing a one-dimensional shrew as Dickie's girlfriend, Cyndi. Much of her role glaringly must have made it on the cutting room floor.
As a gut-busting comedy, "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" does not really make the grade, but its well-intentioned sweetness and lighter shades of humor work well within the confines of its story. Its cameo list, meanwhile, is large and exhaustive, and the finale sing-along boasts a sly, inventive spark that a lesser throwaway movie might not have even thought of. David Spade is far from the most talented screen comedians working today, and oftentimes his onscreen sincerity is easy to be mistaken for a wink to the camera, but "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" is a step closer to character growth. The role suits him.