1 Hr., 34 Mins.
Fun with Dick and Jane September 25, 2020
un with Dick and Jane (1977) squanders its scanty potential promptly, painfully — it’s a narrow, all-elbows caper comedy. The film, written by David Giler, Jerry Belson, and Mordecai Richler, and directed by Ted Kotcheff, stars Jane Fonda and George Segal as the titular married couple — well-to-do 30-somethings who live in a spacious, suburban California home. Their biggest concern, of late, is getting
their backyard’s long-awaited pool built. It’ll keep them cool for the summer; it will keep them up to trend with their wealthy neighbors. (Dick is a lucrative aerospace engineer; Jane stays at home, her biggest duties getting their elementary-school-aged son to and from school and delegating labor to hired help.) As the film opens, though, Dick and Jane’s comfort takes a blow. Dick’s boss, eternally sloshed Charlie (Ed McMahon), announces that things aren’t going well for the company. The company is in fact so unwell that Dick — who has worked here for years, who has come to understand himself as an indispensible asset — is among those who will be let go to save costs. Doesn’t matter that the department he runs is one of the business’s highest-performing.
Fun with Dick and Jane seems poised to be a scintillating roasting session targeting upper-crusters like Dick and Jane, who subsequently ponder if they’re too prideful to make use of food stamps and unemployment checks. (They’re in way too crushing of debt to tap into savings during this precarious period.) The movie appears at first as though it’s going to make its protagonists the fools — show that there is nothing wrong with needing financial assistance, that the stigmatization is just a result of unhealthy capitalism brain, and that Dick and Jane and all their high-class ilk should be laughed at for being more concerned with pretenses and maintaining looks than survival. Is Fun with Dick and Jane
going to be a burlesquing of the bourgeoisie — a comedy like, say, Some Like It Hot (1959), where the hero lives in the shoes of another for a short period and learns how to become more empathetic?
After only briefly engaging with and nearly condemning just how hostilely America treats its minimum-wage workers, its people who struggle to get by, its most marginalized, its recently-fired-with-no-lifeline, the feature abruptly decides to become a caper movie. Dick and Jane are so desperate for money that they think it’ll be best — if not “best,” far more fun than performing menial tasks — to turn to a life of crime. A succession of robbery scenes ensue — they’re pretty funny, a little suspenseful. Dick and Jane go from being totally awkward at it to staggeringly proficient in no time. At the end of the movie, the lives of this couple get back on track, though only after they’ve done even more dirty work.
How screwed up it is that you can lose your job and be left, essentially, to fend for yourself. Early on in the movie, the film seems primed to zoom out — to show that Dick and Jane have been since forever living in this bubble and that it’s embarrassing, if understandable, how long they’re remained myopic. It’s time for a popping. But everything is gone about the wrong way.
Anyone who doesn't adhere to the white, wealthy status quo Dick and Jane are used to are condescended to — not just by the film's principle characters but also by the film itself. People of color in Fun with Dick and Jane are almost exclusively presented to us in stereotype (bumbling criminals), and, if not, are around for the sole purpose of disruption (home inspectors). They are to be resented in basically any case. In one scene, the person in front of Dick in line at the unemployment office is a transgender woman, and he not only enthusiastically speaks transphobically of her to the cashier when it’s his turn (he thinks it's funny) — he’s makes sure to let out a homophobic slur, too. When the teller corrects him, the movie presents it with faux-sincerity — as if to say that people like this employee should lighten up and let this everyday bigotry fly. Dick gleefully dons brownface when he briefly freelances as a theater extra; he thinks it impossible Jane easily get a job because, to his eye, she’s not qualified to even be a secretary or a sex worker. (First offensive because his wife has a college degree, second because, since when was either profession the lowest of the low, humiliating to be to make a living?)
Dick’s a dick. Clearer writing might have made it obvious that Dick is meant to be a dick — a personification of the nasty, solipsistic rich guy who wouldn’t think any of those adjectives could be applied to him. But the movie never confirms this. The casual transphobia, the casual racism, the casual misogyny are treated one and the same as cutesy comedic traits, like clumsiness or an odd laugh. Plus, this is a movie built around Dick, not the people he talks down to. I wasn't so keen on having fun with him.
Fonda, in contrast, does delightful work as Jane. She does frazzled, in the classic screwball-comedy sense, very well. I loved watching her in one scene attempting to make the most of a last-minute fashion modeling gig and her limbs turn out to be more noodle-ish in this setting than she’d anticipated. The scene climaxes when she trips and sets off what is basically an improvised, human Rube Goldberg machine. It’s Lucille Ball caliber. The movie, a big-grosser in 1977, did wonders for Fonda’s acting career, which was flagging since around the time she won an Oscar for her stellar work in the crime drama Klute (1971). (The mainstream wasn’t altogether fond of her sudden leaning into activism post-1969’s Barbarella.)
The Bonnie and Clyde-inflected scenes don’t come for a long time in Fun with Dick and Jane; about an hour has passed before the off-the-cuff crime spree commences. These sequences are executed well enough; a climactic car chase genuinely thrills. But what Fun with Dick and Jane doesn’t address is that having its leads turning to crime at its midpoint — and facing no consequences once they've decided they've had enough — and framing it as something goofy and exciting is most representative of what feels so wrong about the movie. These people can basically do whatever the fuck they want with impunity because they’re white and privileged. And whether or not they understand this this explicitly, they undoubtedly subconsciously know it.
Yet Dick and Jane still look down on marginalized people — whether marginalized because of their race or class or both — and would even more so if those marginalized people turned to a life of crime out of desperation just as they do. The film could have so easily satirized the hypocrisy — tacitly acknowledge that Jane and Dick do in fact suck. Start conversations about the ingrained societal discrepancies that allow simple upward mobility for some but not others. Dick and Jane are so un-self-aware, representative of various
inequalities. But to the movie’s eye these leads are just neurotic and funny and eventually pretty clever. The glibness nauseates. Fun with Dick and Jane is, antithetically, no fun. C
un with Dick and Jane leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. This might have been a refreshingly scathing satire of the bourgeoisie — a sharp critique of how, in America, some people (e.g., straight, conventionally attractive white men like Dick) are essentially born able to easily succeed, and as such could last a lifetime not experiencing any real crushing failures, setbacks, systemic obstacles.