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Fun With Dick and Jane (1977)

Movies — especially comedies with criminal protagonists face an elementary hurdle to success: Crime is abhorrent to most audience members. However, Hollywood has developed several tricks to surmount this natural resistance and transform criminal characters into sympathetic, sometimes near-heroic, figures:

  1. Excuse the characters' anti-social acts by subjecting them to an extremely unfair social system through which their redemption may only be achieved by breaking the bounds of that system (examples: Robin Hood, John Q)
  2. Imbue the criminal characters with admirable traits, such as a codes of honor or guilt, and pit them against other criminals or larger forces of corruption with no such mitigating qualities (The Godfather)
  3. Or make them so damned attractive and/or charming or sociologically intriguing that the fun in watching their criminal exploits momentarily trumps any moral qualms raised by their actions (Bonnie and Clyde, Pulp Fiction).

The 1977 hit comedy Fun With Dick and Jane flirts with each of those tried-and-true formulas but never commits to any of them with enough style or quality to overcome the simplistic cynicism fueling its blunt satire. George Segal and Jane Fonda star as Dick and Jane Harper, an upper-middle-class married couple whose idyllic suburban life comes crashing down when Dick is laid off from his comfy aerospace-sector gig. With the Carter-era malaise in full slump, George can't find work, and Jane's attempt to leave housewifehood behind and enter the working world is a disaster. No longer able to keep a step ahead of their heavy debts, Dick and Jane stumble upon their only practical income alternative: steal. The premise of Fun With Dick and Jane is not half-bad (and ripe for a remake, starring, say, Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni), but the execution is far from agreeable, as it never explores the potential of its idea. After a bright start, with a clever title sequence using the classic "Dick and Jane" reading primer figures to establish the backstory, director Ted Kotcheff slips into autopilot mode. The film takes far too long dawdling through the Harpers' slapsticky economic woes, and once they finally decide to embark on a life of crime they make an unsatisfyingly instant transition from bungling novices to master thieves, and almost immediately thereafter decide on retirement and one last big score. The supposed satirical targets of Dick and Jane are the deceptive stability of the greedy middle class and the white-collar criminal culture of big business, but the jabs in either direction are only shadow punches, meager and sloppy and making no substantial comic impact. Worse yet, the characters of Dick and Jane are so shallow, self-involved, and ultimately culpable in their own miseries that, with little chemistry between the leads, the fate of the Harper family never becomes a cause worth rooting for, leaving their few barely amusing adventures functionally irrelevant, mostly tedious, and irredeemably distasteful. The theme song, "Ahead in the Game" by The Movies, is enjoyably kitschy, at least. Also with Ed McMahon. Sony/Columbia TriStar presents Fun with Dick and Jane in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a sometimes-grainy source-print, while audio is delivered on a Dolby 2.0 Surround track. Trailer for 2005 remake, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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