Hot Under the White Collar

Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In 2005, a glut of Hollywood dramas—like Munich, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, even War of the Worlds—dramatized our shared anxieties about terrorism, the military-oil complex, Big Pharma, and Tom Cruise. But polls suggest that moviegoers are even more worried about issues like Social Security and pensions, and by the vague sense that this growing economy isn’t. In other words: money. That’s something Hollywood wrung its hands about all year, if only offscreen. So it’s a pleasant shock to see the arrival of Fun With Dick & Jane, a pitch-perfect farce for the post-Enron era. Not only did the movie open right in the middle of the MTA strike, but its plot is all about pensions.

As a corporate flack whose new-media company, Globodyne, combusts in scandal, Jim Carrey has finally found a role that suits his spastic mania. Maddened by his senseless unemployment, he and his wife (the marvelously snarky Téa Leoni) spiral out of control. Almost instantly broke (their pensions were invested in now-worthless Globodyne stock), the two hock their flat-panel TV to pay the nanny. Landscapers have literally repossessed the sod from their well-tended front lawn. And Carrey, in an adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s minimum-wage exposé Nickel and Dimed, is forced to take a series of degrading jobs—from Wal-Mart-ish greeter to illegal day laborer—quickly discovering, as rapper Kanye West sang about his days as a Gap shop clerk, that you “can’t shine on $6.55.”

But it’s not until the night he watches the sprinklers go off on his block that he totally loses it, carving jagged patches of turf out of his neighbors’ yards in a delirious spasm that echoes the manic toaster-stealing of Sam Shepard’s play True West, another story of suburban emasculation. Pleased with their stolen grass and convinced that all that “decent Americans who play by the rules” stuff is bull, the couple reenacts Bonnie and Clyde in the burbs—only with sillier costume changes—robbing yuppie coffee shops to pay for a new pool. And though Dean Parisot’s film (co-scripted by The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Judd Apatow, a new force to be reckoned with) is a remake of a 1977 Jane Fonda movie, the jokes that hit their marks are pointedly current. There’s even a re-creation of Bush’s “Now watch this” golfing moment in Fahrenheit 9/11, with Dubya doubled by Alec Baldwin’s Texan-ish Globodyne CEO.

It seemed that Hollywood had all but abandoned the long tradition of class-struggle comedies, one embraced by nearly every great American comic from Charlie Chaplin to Eddie Murphy. Lately, studio comedies have been spoofy remakes or solipsistic satires about media people or unfunnily earnest movies like The Family Stone or Rumor Has It, all of which seem to transpire in some Dreamland USA, where Wally and the Beav are alive and well and tooling around Pasadena in Range Rovers.

It’s curious that Dick & Jane is such an anomaly, because class comedy is booming on TV, where shows like Everybody Hates Chris and The Office have put money front and center. And it’s particularly surprising that Hollywood took so long to send up Kenneth Lay and WorldCom (both are thanked in the end credits), because in the eighties, audiences flocked to class-war comedies like Trading Places. If those films punctured the frothy bubbles of Dynasty and Dallas, perhaps Fun With Dick & Jane and Kanye West and Everybody Hates Chris signal the rumblings of a populist pop backlash against MTV Cribs and Sex and the City.

And maybe it’s a sign of the times that many moviegoers can sympathize with Jim Carrey’s relatively well-to-do whining in the first place. (I know my health-care premium just went up—did yours?) These days, it’s not just Eddie Murphy’s wise-ass who emerges from the ghetto to tell truth to power; the rich are so much richer that even Carrey’s soccer dad is howling. Back in the eighties, who would have predicted that our newest tramp would be driving a BMW?

Fun With Dick & Jane
Directed by Dean Parisot.
Sony. PG-13.

Hot Under the White Collar