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CRIME DOESN'T PAY. At least that's what the post-Watergate flurry of indictments, CIA bugs hidden in chandeliers, and James Q. Wilson seem to be saying. And everyone involved in the Patty Hearst case except F. Lee Bailey would agree. But an alternative tradition of the likeable, triumphant crook has evolved in Hollywood, and Ted Kotcheff's Fun with Dick and Jane is an heir to this genre.
At the start of the film, Dick (George Segal) has lost his job as an aerospace engineer. Reduced to standing on unemployment lines, he realizes that the "bulging pocket makes the easy life." So, he and his wife Jane (Jane Fonda) rehearse a Bonnie and Clyde act, first out of necessity and then as a sexual turn-on. They debut as criminals by robbing a drugstore; then they progress to the telephone company and Dick's old firm. Dick eventually outsmarts his ex-boss Charley (Ed McMahon) to wind up as president of the corporation. If crime is a game, then their winning number keeps coming up on the roulette wheel.
The brains of the dynamic duo, Fonda proves her talent as a comedienne even after previous roles as a hooker, a neurotic, and an anti-war activist. She's at her most caustic when she tells Dick to beware of the placement of his gun in his pants, as he might "go off half-cocked." Segal is barely adequate as her fumbling but well-intentioned husband. Dick is the quintessential Segal role, so sometimes he appears to sleepwalk through his unchallenging part. After a while, he follows every line with the same crooked grin and hand gesture. And McMahon helps turn Charley into a complete caricature, a cardboard figure who survives through backbiting, guzzling, and fanny-pinching.
STILL, MOST of the blame for stereotypic characterization belongs to director Kotcheff and his scriptwriter Mordecai Richler, the same team responsible for the superior The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. By choosing the names Dick and Jane (and Billy for their child, Spot for their dog), Richler intends to present a typical family. At one point, Dick shouts that he won't be destroyed, because he represents the American middle class. But this conception of the middle class appears ludicrous, unless Richler wishes to depict the average Beverly Hills household, replete with swimming pool and cabana. It's difficult to sympathize with people who pilfer only to live in opulence and to keep up with the Joneses.
Just as the characters fall flat, so does most of the humor. Korcheff and Richler try to mingle comedy with satire by including all of the obligatory but overworked jokes. As they indiscriminately mock diverse sectors of American life, their many-colored pallet congeals into a brown blob. Particularly offensive are the overheated but not well done comments on sex change operations, the welfare system, and rugged individualism. In one scene, Jane's father refuses to lend money because he worships an icon of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the promoter of self-reliance. Here, the humor is too forced to be incisive or even amusing.
Luckily, at least some of the buffoonery provokes laughs. One especially funny moment occurs when Dick attempts the robbery of a drugstore. He starts feeling around inside his pants for the gun; the druggist winks slyly and offers him six brands of prophylactics. And, when the two hold up the telephone company, a line of customers filing complaints immediately begins to applaud. One woman even advises them to shoot the computer.
DESPITE THESE occasional stabs at humor, Dick and Jane ultimately fails because of its heavy-handedness. Fred Koenekamp's leaden photography is yet another culprit. Examining the division between black and white, his camera focuses on a group of dancing black employees in Charley's office, then roams to depict the slow, stinking affluence at an aerospace company party. The camera's eye, like the script, lacks subtlety. The film editing, too, obviously emphasizes the difference between rich and poor neighborhoods, by switching from Dick and Jane's ivory dream house to a dark pool hall frequented by the unemployed.
Indeed, the only people who deserve to stand on an unemployment line are the producers of Fun with Dick and Jane. The true criminals of the film, they probably discovered this script sitting at the bottom of the television movie rejects pile. But, after all, Kotcheff proves that crime pays, as each person in his audience leaves the theatre three dollars and fifty cents poorer.
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