The 1990-'95 run of Saturday Night Live, when the show was a playground populated by, among others, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Kevin Nealon, Mike Myers and David Spade, was a low point in a show with a longer history of making you groan than laugh. The sketches played like entries in a frat-house talent show, filled as they were with gross-out gags (the cast licking host Kirstie Alley from head to toe), child-molestation bits (Alec Baldwin getting handsy with Sandler's Canteen Boy), cross-dressing yuks (Spade, Sandler and Farley as Gap girls) and silly-voice shenanigans (baby-talking Sandler always sounded two weeks out of the womb). Little wonder the subsequent cast, with Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond and Cheri Oteri, was viewed as genius and curative: Their predecessors had set the bar lower than magma.
Yet that '90-'95 cast would become SNL's most successful graduating class, with Sandler as the most munificent alumnus: His production company, Happy Madison, charitably funds the careers of Carvey (Master of Disguise), Schneider (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, The Animal, The Hot Chick) and Spade (Joe Dirt and now Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star), almost all of which feature Nealon, Jon Lovitz and other SNL dropouts with hands out. Fred Wolf, an SNL writer from that period, is also part of the cheerless gang; he wrote Spade and Farley's Black Sheep, as well as Norm McDonald's dreary Dirty Work, Spade's mullet-themed Joe Dirt and now Dickie Roberts. Combined, their movies are things you don't watch so much as step in.
Dickie Roberts' central failure, aside from the fact it elicits no laughs till its credit-roll sing-along featuring dozens of where-are-they-nows parodying "We Are the World," is that it believes fiction is funnier than fact. Spade plays a cutesy kid TV star who's now three shades lighter than has-been; in the '70s, he was responsible for the catch phrase "It's nucking futs," which is all he is remembered for decades later. Dickie's one step lower on the fast-food chain than even Dustin "Screech" Diamond, Corey Feldman and Leif Garrett, who attend Dickie's weekly poker games with other Nick at Nite escapees, among them Barry Williams and Danny Bonaduce.
Dickie does all the things former child stars do in real life: He boxes Emmanuel Lewis for prime-time small change, parks cars of people who are still famous and mourns his lost childhood. (Were the film made today, he might also run for governor of California.) But the fake Dickie has nothing on the real Danny or Barry, who took part in Fox's Celebrity Boxing and have done nothing but play themselves for years on game shows and sitcoms and movies like this one in need of lazy punch lines. The poker game scene is at once the movie's highlight and low point: Williams wagers old Brady Bunch props (Marcia's braces, say) rather than the money he doesn't have; his pals lament the loss of limos and privilege and garner our sympathetic chuckles. We don't feel sorry for them, necessarily, but are nonetheless glad we aren't them.
Yet Spade insists he doesn't miss the money, only the "love" lavished on him when he was someone: "People loved me when I was a star." But he can no more play sincere than Barry Williams could sing. Spade's going for sympathetic but comes off sycophantic; he's desperate for us to love a character so unlikable. Michael J. Fox played the part of early failure better in Life With Mikey; he imbued the part of former child star-turned-kiddie-actor agent with equal parts bitterness and nostalgia, while all Spade can muster is the smarmy air of someone who believes himself worthy of fame. Dickie, in his thrift-store wardrobe and a porn star's leer, believes himself a real actor and can't believe others don't take him seriously, least of all Rob Reiner, who's casting a role Dickie desperately wants but can never get because he doesn't know how to be "normal." (The biggest joke in Dickie Roberts is that Reiner, whose recent Alex & Emma was released straight to hotel pay-per-view, possesses the most coveted script in Hollywood.)
To deprogram himself, Dickie moves in with a family: kindly mom Mary McCormack, sleazy pop Craig Bierko and their movie-cute kids, played by Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd. Of course, the whole wholesome lot teaches Dickie how to be human, while Dickie turns out to be a decent father figure; when the movie's not playing stupid, it's aiming for sickly sweet sincerity. It's such a jarring and inevitably juvenile juxtaposition it comes off like a Hallmark card parody written by the staffers at Cracked. It's also more than a little creepy when Dickie, initially trying to get in touch with a lost childhood, winds up romancing his "mother"; it's an Oedipus wreck.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.