1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
The best thing about star and co-writer David Spade's "Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star" is the end-title sequence, a big, sassy sing-along in which dozens of old TV child stars spew out defiant jokes about their old careers and fame's fickle fingers.
That sequence, with the former kid icons lined up on tiers like a demented high school chorus, brings back such blasts from the past as Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick of "The Brady Bunch," Gary Coleman of "Diff'rent Strokes," Danny Bonaduce of "The Partridge Family" and Tony Dow of "Leave It to Beaver." And though it only lasts a few minutes, it's funny, snide, surprising, lively and even charming -- everything the movie is not.
Not that it doesn't try. "Dickie Roberts" has a promising theme -- the human survivors and flotsam of old family-sitcom TV -- and Spade has what superficially seems a good part for him: one-time tot icon Dickie Roberts, an over-the-hill prodigy and '70s relic. Spade and his collaborators, co-writer Fred Wolf and director Sam Weisman, imagine what could have been a terrifically funny character: an aging, self-deluded child star who, at 35, is still trying to recapture the fame handed to him at preschool age and then rudely snatched away when he hit 6 years old.
Dickie, national idol on the corny TV show "The Glimmer Gang," became famous for his angelic blond looks and a naughty catchphrase. But his kid years ended -- very rapidly, according to the mock "E! Hollywood True Story" biography that starts the movie -- and by the time we see him, Dickie has been reduced to parking cars at a posh L.A. restaurant and taking celebrity boxing matches with the likes of diminutive real-life child star Emmanuel Lewis (of "Webster" fame), who beats him.
That's a funny idea. And for a while, the movie seems to be on the right track. Spade spews out his lazy-sarcastic jibes as Dickie keeps up a regular poker game with fellow over-the-hill kids Leif Garrett and Corey Feldman and hunts desperately for a comeback. But his venal girlfriend, Cyndi, played by former child star Alyssa Milano ("Who's the Boss?"), ditches Dickie before his flustered but loyal agent, Sidney (Jon Lovitz), comes up with a chance: a career-boosting star role in a Rob Reiner movie.
Dickie goes to desperate lengths for the part and finally gets a meeting with Reiner. Countering Reiner's complaint that Dickie never led a normal child life and therefore can't relate to his film's inspirational all-American character, he hatches an insane plot. Dickie advertises for a normal family to treat him as their normal child for a few months, and he gets the Finneys, a suburban bunch whose father, George (Craig Bierko), wants to exploit Dickie's ex-fame for his own failing car dealership. George may be an opportunist jerk, but mom Grace (Mary McCormack) and kiddies Sally and Sam (Jenna Boyd and Scott Tessa) are a cutesy-pie clan who might have been minted in sitcom heaven.
So Dickie joins the Finneys, pals and wisecracks around with Sally and Sam, plays with their toys, stands up to their class bullies, and bonds with mom Grace. There are no surprises here -- and that's what's wrong. The adult lives of ex-child stars on the fringes of Hollywood can be an almost surreally moving subject, as Bette Davis proved in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" However, this movie simply tries to mine its humor through hipster Spade's invasion of sitcom land.
Spade, elfin at 39, looks right for the role. But he's too locked into his familiar comic persona -- the smug cool that made him such a good straight man for frantic Chris Farley. Spade isn't believably desperate and on-the-edge. He acts like someone who knows the score -- not somebody who was washed up at 6, like Dickie.
Wouldn't it be funnier if the family had real-life problems and Dickie kept treating them as if they were sitcom cartoons? Having him try to become a child again in a cliché family is just foolish. And it makes this ersatz hip movie foolish, despite the fact that "Dickie Roberts" has a good cast for this type of film (especially Lovitz, McCormack and Bierko).
Director Sam Weisman ("George of the Jungle") knows the formulas and so do Spade and Wolf -- perhaps too well. "Dickie Roberts" is locked into formula from the opening minutes, and the only times it breaks loose are the opening mockumentary scene, the end-title song and, every once in a while, in the stray gags or guest appearances -- as when Brendan Fraser pops up, or when Reiner tries to explain what he wants from Dickie.
Is it just bad vibes that the movie Reiner is planning here sounds so much more like "North" than "This Is Spinal Tap" or "When Harry Met Sally"? And will "Dickie Roberts" at least juice up cameo star Gary Coleman's current California gubernatorial campaign? Perhaps, but it isn't likely to do much for either Dickie or David Spade -- or for anyone who would rather watch a good new movie than bad but beloved old TV.
"Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star"
Directed by Sam Weisman; written by David Spade, Fred Wolf; photographed by Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Roger Bondelli; production designed by Dina Lipton; music by Christophe Beck, Waddy Wachtel; produced by Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 5. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 (crude and sex-related humor, language and drug references).
Dickie Roberts -- David Spade
Grace -- Mary McCormack
Sidney -- Jon Lovitz
Cyndi -- Alyssa Milano
George Finney -- Craig Bierko