Monday, October 10, 2011

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977 / 2005)

George and Jane verses Jim and Téa

"Life sucks," says Dick.
From 1930 until the early 1970s, Dick and Jane and their friends helped first graders learn to read in classrooms all across America. These films have precisely nothing to do with that. This writer is too young to have ever laid eyes on the once ubiquitous children’s primer, but doubts that they tackled such issues as joblessness, armed robbery, and corporate corruption.

The remake is an update more than anything and so it doesn’t depart much from the original. The basic story is that Dick and Jane Harper (George Segal and Jane Fonda in the 1977 version; Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni in 2005) are a couple on the fast-track to success. Things take a turn for the worse when Dick loses his job and, despite months of searching and frugal living, he is unable to find new employment. Faced with mounting debt and desperation, the couple eventually resorts to a life of crime to pay the bills. Hilarity ensues.

That the films differ at all is mostly because each is a product of its time. In 1977, Dick is a high-level aerospace engineer who is fired as the industry is collapsing. In 2000 (the year in which the 2005 film is set), Dick is promoted to VP of Communication for his company literally days before it folds à la Enron. In 1977, Jane is a stay-at-home mother. In 2000, Jane is a travel agent pining for what her ’77 counterpart had. In 1977, son Billy and Spot the dog are just kinda there. In 2000, Billy speaks Spanish thanks to the housekeeper and Spot wears a shock collar.

Rather than save it for the end of the review, I’m just going to come out and say that the remake, while not first-rate comedy, is far more humorous than the original. Of course, some of this owes to the fact that Carey plays his part with his usual verve while Segal plays all his punch lines straight. Surprisingly though, Carey is pretty restrained for most of the film. His antics are limited to the heist scenes, and even then they aren’t out of control.

Part of what puts the 2005 version ahead of the 1977 film is better pacing. It may be my modern sensibilities taking over, but both films get to the part when Dick and Jane decide to go on a hold-up spree around the 45 minute mark. Even so, the original version feels like it takes a lot longer to get there. Some of this has to do with how each Dick and Jane react to their troubled situation. In the original film, most of the action and humor for the first half center on Dick’s ill-fated attempts to navigate the unemployment bureaucracy. The remake displaces this with the couple hocking their possessions, even downgrading their Beemer to the worst hatchback imaginable. Both situations are ripe for humor, but the new version makes better use of its situation.

In addition, the remake retained many of the best bits from the original and stepped them up. In one early scene from both films, landscapers arrive to repossess the lawn, rolling up the sod while Jane flaps about pretending she is ordering it removed for the benefit of the neighbors. In the new version Jane quips, “I didn't know they could do that!” Both films have Dick joining up with Mexican day-laborers only to have a run-in with immigration. And later, when the couple is going out on heists, they don various strange costumes. You can bet that the new costumes outdo the old ones. That Jane takes a more active role in addressing the family’s struggles in the remake only provides further opportunities for humor.

Besides the comedy, one thing that lifted the remake above the original for me was a different relationship between Dick and Jane. Much of the humor of the original comes from Segal and Fonda constantly snarking at each other.

JANE: The only jobs you consider me qualified for are secretary and hooker.
DICK: You're not qualified to be a secretary.

Conversely, Carey and Leoni present a couple that is entirely supportive of each other even at the grimmest point of the film.

DICK: There's always prostitution. 
(JANE gives him a stern look.)
DICK: I meant me!

I realize that on paper, the original joke is funnier. But in context, both are delivered with utter sincerity giving the first gag a cringe worthy edge and the second one a goofiness which pulls an involuntary smile.

Of course, both pairs are very loving when the money is rolling in. And like in all good heist movies, eventually the pair decides to pull off one last big job before retiring. I won’t get into comparing the two, but I will say they are vastly different and that they both give Dick’s jerk boss (Ed McMahon, 1977; Alec Baldwin, 2005) an appropriate comeuppance.

To close, a penis joke from each film.

JANE: (referring to the gun in Dick’s waistband) You realize if that thing 
goes off, you'll be going on this robbery half-cocked.
(both speaking suggestively)
JANE: I am married to a genius.
DICK: It's a turn-on, isn't it? 
JANE: You're a criminal. 
DICK: I'm a hardened criminal.


  1. tryanmax, Interesting article and well described. I have two particular thoughts.

    First, thinking about it, a remake should always have certain advantages over the original when it comes to comedy unless the prior film worked purely as a chemistry piece or highlighted a particular actor. My reasoning is that the creator of the remake can see what worked and what didn't. Indeed, I've always found when I look at old things I've written that dozens of new thoughts and ways to improve my prior drafts spring to mind. I think that gives remakes an advantage.

    That said, the advantage can be squandered. For example, making serious changes -- like changing the nature of the relationship -- can undermine that advantage because now you're in new ground essentially. Similarly, not getting why the original worked can be a problem.

    I don't think that was the case here at all, I just mention it as a hazard.

    My second thought is that you really put your finger on these films being products of their time. The Jane Fonda era was the time of the ERA and the war of the sexes. Most relationships were shown as a battleground between hapless men and strong women, and Fonda was deep in that. I don't doubt that there was also a slap at housewives, as feminists at the time really disdained any women who did not seek economic independence.

    But by 2005, that war was over (except on college campuses). There was no reason to make the marriage relationship an adversarial one anymore and even the pining to be a stay-at-home mom was now acceptable again. I think that probably accounts for the different feel of the films more than anything.

    All in all, nice article, very thoughtful.

  2. Thanks for the insight and for checking the new site out. Hopefully I can manage to attract more followers and really make the talk exciting.

    I'll keep some of those ideas in mind as I continue reviewing. I'm still toying with the idea of applying a rating system. If I do, all originals should have a handicap, which for me is a good reason not to rate the films.

  3. I've toyed with the idea of a rating system in the past too, but I'm not sure if it's a good or bad idea. The best rating system I've seen is what they guy at scriptshadow does. He has 4/5 choices and they are descriptive like "wasn't for me" rather than the traditional good, bad, poor or just a number system.