Angst with Dick and Jane

Times Staff Writer

LISTEN. Do you hear it?

That hurricane-sized collective sigh of relief is coming from the Culver City studios of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

For weeks, the beleaguered souls who run Columbia Pictures have endured the worst sorts of Hollywood rumors -- that their new Jim Carrey comedy, "Fun With Dick & Jane," was a "troubled project."

There were the reports of hefty script rewrites, true. The more than two weeks of last-minute reshoots, also true. And word from the set that the ever-perfectionist Carrey, a producer as well as star, was hogging the camera for up to 40 takes at times -- well, no comment. And how about the $100-million budget?

Even Carrey, who produced the film with Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer, has no clear explanation for why his movie had a ballooning budget. (Is it really that expensive to film gardeners rolling up Dick and Jane's lawn after they can't pay the bill?)

"Maybe somebody is buying golden toilet seats somewhere," Carrey offers, adding: "Ask the Pentagon what they do." (Of course Carrey, who is one of Hollywood's A-list actors, commanding up to $30 million per picture, might be singled out as one reason Hollywood movies cost so much, but we digress.)

The Tinseltown chatter had it that Carrey's project was so off the rails it might actually be the proverbial final nail in the coffin for embattled Columbia Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who despite all the bows she has taken for the "Spider-Man" franchise also is taking flak for releasing a long list of clunkers including "Stealth," "Spanglish," "Bewitched," "XXX: State of the Union," "Lords of Dogtown," "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" and "Oliver Twist." But while no one knows how "Fun With Dick & Jane" will fare until the film lands in theaters Dec. 21, advance screenings suggest it won't be the embarrassment that some in Hollywood have predicted.

Indeed, word emanating from the Sony camp is that the film has tested great after the filmmakers made the necessary reshoots and tweaks, and that Carrey has not "gone dark" with his comedy instincts the way he did in 1996's "The Cable Guy."

Carrey loyalists actually can rest easy, for "Fun With Dick & Jane" showcases Carrey in all his maniacal, elastic-face, bulging-eyes, comic fury. Director Dean Parisot allows the comedian to run wild -- whether it's a mangled attempt to whip out a toy squirt gun during a convenience-store heist, or unintentionally zapping himself in the neck while demonstrating how the electrically charged collar works to keep the family pooch in line.

Inexplicable expense

STILL, there is no sane reason why this movie should have cost more than $100 million, as there are few special effects and it has a running time in the 90-minute range. (That new sound you hear is "Waterworld" star Kevin Costner laughing uproariously as we complain about today's film costs.)

"I don't know why movies cost so much," Carrey says, then rambles on that whenever a studio makes a movie it seems that things cost more. It certainly never happened, he said, when he made Focus Features' "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

"Fun With Dick and Jane," as any late-night denizen who has nothing better to do than browse Blockbuster can attest, is a remake of the 1977 film starring George Segal and Jane Fonda. The movie, about an ambitiously upscale couple trying to stem an unexpected economic descent with a comical crime spree, had its moments but was considered a misfire even in its time.

Brandon Gray, president and publisher of the website Box Office Mojo, said filming a remake of "Fun With Dick & Jane" has one advantage: "It's no vaunted classic, so nothing sacrilegious is going on here."

And if the public perceives him to be in the right vehicle, Carrey is a box office powerhouse. "You get Jim Carrey in a straightforward comedy and it's through the roof like 'Liar Liar' or 'Bruce Almighty,' " Gray said. " 'The Truman Show' was very successful but also had a mixed reception from audiences. Subsequent attempts to stretch things other than his face have led to some box office failures such as 'The Majestic' and 'Man on the Moon.' "

Carrey isn't bothered by the remake label on "Fun With Dick & Jane."

"I don't like to do anything unoriginal," he said. "I'm always a little weary about it. But in this case, I felt it was ripe to be done because of the social climate in the world," with Enron and other corporate scandals. (The remake is set in that now all-too-familiar world of corporate scandal, misappropriated funds, indictments and downsizing.)

Carrey said he knows how it feels to be in a family where the breadwinner is jobless. His family, he said, "hit the skids when I was 12 years old. My father was 51. He was a controller for a company. They let him go. He never got it together after that."

Judd Apatow, who wrote "The Cable Guy" and shares writing credit with Nicholas Stoller on the PG-13-rated "Fun With Dick & Jane" remake, said the original "Fun With Dick & Jane" was a satire of America in the post-Nixon era "where people realized government and systems were so corrupt they felt like it allowed them to do what they wanted to do. This [remake] is a little bit more of a revenge fantasy of what you wish you could do if you got treated really badly by your mega-bosses."

Parisot ("Galaxy Quest") said he wasn't one for doing remakes, but that in this case he bit because the Enron scandal, and all those other cascading corporate scandals that laid bare the corporate greed of the 1990s, proved to be a theme worth exploring.

"All of us know someone who has been downsized," Parisot said. "

Fallout for the fall guy

IN the film, Carrey and costar Tea Leoni portray an upper-middle-class married couple, Dick and Jane Harper. As the movie unfolds, Dick's years of hard work at Globodyne (we're never really sure what Globodyne does to make its money) finally pay off when his boss, Jack McCallister (Alec Baldwin), promotes him to vice president of communications. Dick is so confident that good times are around the corner that he suggests his wife quit her job, as she has long vowed to do so she can spend more time with their 6-year-old son, Billy.

All seems bliss until Dick's bosses persuade him to go on TV and promote the company. But during the TV interview, he becomes aware that a major financial scandal is driving down the company's stock. Dick becomes not only a laughingstock but also subject to a grand jury indictment. Meanwhile, his boss deftly dodges any criminal wrongdoing, while Globodyne's employees discover their pensions have vanished.

Dick initially believes he'll have no trouble landing a new job, and so he waits. And waits. When it finally sinks in that they need money or their lifestyle will go the way of the Joads, Dick lands a job as a greeter at a Wal-Mart-like big-box store. He finally snaps after his lawn is repossessed.

Out of desperation, the couple begin staging a series of nighttime robberies.

Here is where the on-screen chemistry between Carrey and Leoni kicks in. One of the funnier scenes involves a convenience store robbery gone awry. And how can you dislike the masked Dick and Jane stopping for a moment during a heist to appreciate the nonfat muffins?

Carrey is often at his best when he improvises.

There was a scene, Parisot recalled, in which Carrey and Leoni, dressed as cat burglars, have their victim tied up as they are about to abscond with his valuable paintings. What makes the scene work is the way the couple, Carrey in particular, play with devices that distort their voices, an element not in the script.

"At the last second, my prop guy had these voice boxes that are a kid's toy," the director recalled. "I showed it to Jim and immediately he takes the voice box [and begins improvising]. Literally, there are two hours of footage from that scene where he is going on with that."

Carrey is asked if it is unusual for an actor to do 40 takes of a scene. "It can get there -- especially with comedy," he said. "Because you are looking for something spontaneous, you will do a lot of takes .... Comedy is a very technically precise thing. If it's a split-hair second off target, it's not funny."

The director said the rewrites on "Fun With Dick & Jane" totaled about half of the 30-page figure that has been reported. He also said only four scenes required reshoots.

For example, one scene that came in late has Dick and Jane and their son soaping up and bathing in a neighbor's sprinkler.

Another last-minute scene involved Dick seeking a job at a big company. He is escorted upstairs, where he is ribbed by a group of his corporate peers who recognize him from his infamous Globodyne TV appearance. Parisot said they wanted audiences to truly dislike one of the men doing the ribbing because of a twist involving him later in the film.

The movie's central conceit is that Dick and Jane aren't really bad people. They just go a little bonkers, causing all sorts of mayhem yet suffering no consequences for their crimes.

Yet even though it is a comedy, some people are sure to complain about a movie in which Bonnie and Clyde, adorable to be sure, don't get arrested, don't go on trial, don't go to prison and don't seem to care how their crime spree might affect their little boy.

"They are like kids," Parisot said of Dick and Jane. "You don't see the repercussions. You don't see the seriousness. It's almost like it has no repercussions, it has no reality. These are very silly people."

The fatigue was evident in Carrey's voice as he talked about the time spent getting this film the way he wanted.

"I went to see 'Capote' the other day -- which I just loved," he said, "and I was sitting there thinking to myself how much work goes into finishing these films. It's unbelievable how much time you have to spend to finish it." And then he thought of the years author Truman Capote, the central character in that film, spent writing his classic nonfiction book "In Cold Blood."

"It's just really important to me that I don't suck!"Carrey said. "What it comes down to at this point is, I've made a ton of money.... The only reason I want to keep going comes down to that person in the seat."

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