Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fun with Dick and Jane

Judd Apatow remade “Fun with Dick and Jane,” a movie originally released in 1977 in 2005 and the prototype picture is worth a look. Apatow’s film is about the Zeitgeist that produced the great economic crash of 2008 and it seems curious to me that that remake dates back to before the bubble burst -- in fact predating the recession by three years. Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian director, made the first picture at about the time that American enthusiasm was shriveling during the Carter presidency and the original picture is very shrewd about certain aspects of the U.S. economy that have not materially changed (I am sorry to report) in the 36 intervening years. Jane Fonda and George Segal play a suburban couple who find themselves “underwater” when Segal is laid-off from his job in the Aerospace Industry. (Segal’s boss is played by Ed McMahon; McMahon isn’t great but he’s proficient and, certainly, not hesitant to play against type -- in the film, he is a lecherous, unctuous, and corrupt business executive, not the avuncular type you recall from The Johnny Carson Show.) The couple have leveraged themselves to the hilt to buy a luxurious house where a swimming pool is being constructed amidst expensive landscaping when Segal loses his job. Fonda is a housewife who has never worked and her attempts to earn some money as a model are unsuccessful. Segal is forced to apply for unemployment compensation and, humiliated, has to seek assistance from a Latino friend to navigate the welfare system so that he can get food stamps. The film was marketed as a comedy romp involving the couple’s adventures robbing pharmacies and liquor stores to make ends meet but this aspect of the movie is a late and ill-conceived plot development -- no robberies occur until the film is more than 2/3rds done. By far, the best part of Kotcheff’s picture is the realistic portrait of upwardly mobile American wheeler-dealers suddenly bereft of funds and unable to pay their mortgage. The picture was written by the Canadian novelist Mordechai Richler and, for about an hour, the film is witty, incisive, and compelling. But when desperation forces the characters to their crime spree, the film itself seems desperate and the picture deteriorates rapidly into broad, unfunny slapstick, ending as a standard issue heist movie, brightly lit and shot unimaginatively in a way scarcely distinguishable from a TV sitcom. For an hour, though, the viewer can see what attracted Judd Apatow to the film in 2005 and, during it’s first half, the movie is an interesting portrait of American life and social mores in the mid-seventies. Segal and Fonda are appealing although there is no spark between them and, since they are conceived as victims, their roles don’t give them much amplitude for any real emotion -- they are disappointed by life, increasingly pessimistic, but try to remain cheery and that’s about it. There is a sad aspect to the film. The firm that collapses in this movie to cause Segal’s unemployment is a company involved in putting the first man on the moon and the corporate headquarters of the business, where McMahon gets drunk, fires people, and broods that he has “blood on his hands” is decorated with images of astronauts moon-walking. How the mighty have fallen!

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