Most of us aren’t child stars, but we are the people who make—and break—child stars. We don’t make them in the sense that we broker their deals, schedule their interviews or fashion their images. We do, however, collectively decide if their deals, interviews and images are worth anybody’s time.
Because they’re not only stars but also children, they must surely be worth anybody’s time. But inside the Hollywood celebrity machine, all bets are off. “Child stars” can morph almost overnight into “former child stars”—three words more disturbing than even the two.
“Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,” which opens today starring David Spade, deals with the popular culture phenomenon of childhood stardom: what it means to have it, to lose it, to want it back, to want something that matters.
Former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and “Just Shoot Me” regular Spade plays Dickie, who rose to kiddie fame on the fictional TV show “The Glimmer Gang.” The movie’s beginning chronicles Dickie’s rise and fall through the familiar convention of the “E! True Hollywood Story.”
Now Dickie parks cars for a living and struggles in his relationship with sometime girlfriend Cyndi (played by real-life former child star Alyssa Milano from “Who’s the Boss?”).
But Dickie wants the adoration back, so he decides to audition for a part in director Rob Reiner’s (playing himself) new film. But Reiner tells Dickie he’s not “normal” enough because he didn’t have a real childhood providing emotional development.
Dickie, in a last-ditch effort to get the part, decides to relive his childhood by hiring a family to treat him as one of its children. The Finneys take him up on it: parents George and Grace, and kids Sam and Sally. They call it “operation redo childhood.”
Dickie’s quest to become a “normal” person is thus set in motion. This quest, however, is told with liberal doses of slapstick humor. Not as slapstick as Jim Carrey, but slapstick enough for Spade, who takes the part and runs efficiently with it (he also co-wrote the script).
The movie feature lots of cameos from real child stars, including Leif Garrett, Danny Bonaduce, Corey Feldman, Barry Williams and Emmanuel Lewis of “Webster,” who gets to beat up on Dickie in a “Celebrity Boxing” match illustrating just how deep Dickie’s ship has sunk.
The film is rated PG-13, which means parents are strongly cautioned. There’s good reason for the rating, as Dickie—with a clouded understanding of childhood and adulthood—brings some adult-minded jokes, habits and language into the world of the Finney children.
For example, Dickie wants to buy beer and share it with the kids, but they refuse, saying it’s for adults. Dickie balks and does buy beer, but he also buys root beer, and they all wind up drinking that—and having a burping contest.
Amid the jokes and pop culture references is a positive message about love and things that really matter. And as a totality, “Dickie Roberts” can kick-start some meaningful reflection about the nature of celebrity, especially childhood celebrity, which is explored quite poignantly, if humorously, in a closing-credits song sung by real stars from yesteryear (Wally from “Leave It to Beaver,” Ernie from “My Three Sons” and many more).
“Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” deals with a serious subject in a funny way. It should remind us that those Hollywood stories on E! aren’t only true. They’re often tragic—because their stars have lost the only thing that really matters:
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sex-related humor, language and drug references
Director: Sam Weisman
Writers: Fred Wolf and David Spade
Cast: Dickie Roberts: David Spade; Grace Finney: Mary McCormack; Sidney Wernick: Jon Lovitz; George Finney: Craig Bierko; Cyndi: Alyssa Milano; Sam Finney: Scott Terra; Sally Finney: Jenna Boyd; Rob Reiner as himself.