The more things stay the same, the more they change. I can’t think of a better way to describe this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown. Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) are as about a similar as original and remake can get without crossing over into the shot-for-shot madness of Gus Van Sant and his replication of Psycho. Not only is the basic plot the same but specific moments and scenarios are recreated and put to the exact same purpose. Where these films differ, however, speaks volumes about how America and Hollywood changed over 28 years. Some of the changes are superficial and for the better. It’s the deeper and more subtle differences that are more concerning.
Not that I or anyone should confuse either of these motion pictures with serious cinema. Though both take on important issues of their day, these are first and foremost comedies. The first is amusing and more daring in its wit. The second is a lot funnier but also timid. That edge is why someone remembered “Fun with Dick and Jane” (1977) and thought it deserved a new life. Its absence, despite all aesthetic logic, is why the 2005 version couldn’t inspire anything besides a bowel movement.
Based on a story by Gerald Gaiser, the original “Fun with Dick and Jane” is about an upper-middle class couple who love each other, their son, and the trappings of their upper-middle class life only to become unemployed, go broke, and comedically turn to robbery to reclaim their American Dream. The sequence of events is almost identical in each movie, with the remake expanding a few of the original’s scenes for more laughs. The endings are starkly different and the one place where the writing in 2005 is far inferior to 1977.
Most profoundly, the first film was confident enough in the America of 1977 to put some teeth and breadth into its satire. It mocks the capitalist quagmire Dick and Jane find themselves in and doesn’t shy away from pricking everything and everyone. The second time around, we have very talented filmmakers churning out many more jokes but also being careful about who and what gets to be the butt.
Let’s start with the dueling Dicks. George Segal played the part of Dick Harper in ’77 and Jim Carrey then stepped into his shoes in ‘05. Few entertainers in history can match Carrey’s manic talent and Segal isn’t one of them. Segal was a pretty big star in the late 1970s, though not at Carrey’s level, and is a better actor than Carrey has ever been. Dick Harper with Segal is an actual person. Dick Harper with Carrey is Jim Carrey doing the Jim Carrey things that made Jim Carrey a very rich man. He’s trying to make you laugh, but Segal is also trying to portray a man with real fears and doubts and pride. Carrey is only trying to make you laugh.
They don't make 'em like this any more.
The biggest Dick-difference, by far, is that it’s hard to imagine anyone like the late Segal being a movie star today. He’s not a hunk. He’s not a freakish talent. He’s not a brand. He’s simply a talented and likable performer who could play a variety of roles in any story. But Hollywood doesn’t tell stories anymore. They create vehicles which they hope will turn into franchises. The folks who made “Fun with Dick and Jane” in 1977 did so because they thought it would make a good movie and they thought casting Segal would help with that. In 2005, they just wanted to make a Jim Carrey movie and happened to pick an old script to redo. They could have grabbed another off the pile and no one would likely have noticed or cared.
So among the biggest things we can learn from this Throwdown is how Hollywood has shifted from a place where storytellers tried to tell stories to a place where stories are fabricated to order. And no, I’m not naïve enough to believe there was ever a time when people in Hollywood didn’t want to make money. But they used to think that making quality motion pictures was the key to making money. Now they want a product they can market and aren’t all that picky about whether that product is…you know…anything that anyone will remember 5 minutes after the film is over.
The distinction between the Janes is more depressing. Jane Harper in 1977 is played by Jane Fonda and it is easy to see why she was a movie star, both physically and as an actress. The remake’s Jane is Tea Leoni, a beautiful woman and capable thespian who is not really in Fonda’s league. “But wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t it a positive thing for women if a lesser performer like Leoni can be the star of a film that made over $100,000,000 at the box office?” It would, if Leoni could in any way be considered the star or even the co-star of the flick. Fonda and Segal were equals on screen and in the plot. Their movie was about fun with Dick AND Jane. 2005’s remake should have honestly been titled “Fun with Dick….and there’s also this chick named Jane who comes along for the ride”.
You're almost 60, Jim, and should be a millionarie many times over. It's okay to dress like an grown up.
Before I get too negative with the remake, and before I get into the most bothersome things about it, let me praise it as a well done star vehicle. It’s a lot funnier than the original. It’s also better written in many respects. There’s a bit about the Harper’s lawn being repossessed that’s much more well established in the remake and 2005’s Fun takes a scene from 1977 where Dick is picked up by Immigration for being an illegal alien and not only executes it better but extends it out for more laughs. The second rendition does a superior job as well in unraveling the Harper’s upper-middle class existence in a more logical and believable way. The first Dick and Jane go from top of the heap to bottom of the pile so quickly and easily that you sort of wonder how they ever got to be upper-middle class in the first place.
The clearest and most disturbing way these movies are the same and yet not is in how they portray the American economic system. To start with, George Segal plays an aerospace engineer who loses his job because the economy sucks and the U.S. space program has come to an end. His Dick does real stuff and is unemployed for real reasons. Jim Carrey plays a PR shill who gets set up to take the fall by a corporate CEO who’s defrauded the public and his own workers. His Dick has a job of dubious value and loses it all because one guy decided to play Snidely Whiplash and tie him to the tracks. If anything, the financial scandals of the mid 2000s should have lent an even more bitter and cynical slant to “Fun with Dick and Jane” (2005) but the film takes a cartoonish approach and avoids anything that smacks of questioning the financial status quo. To use a James Bond analogy, it should have been like Connery or Craig but it deliberately chooses to be Roger Moore.
Another way 2005’s film is neutered is in how the story handles the welfare state. In 1977, Dick and Jane’s upper-middle class introduction to unemployment and food stamps make up a key part of the story. 28 years later, Fun with Dick and Jane takes place in a world where government assistance does not exist. Dick never gets unemployment insurance. They never go on welfare. The whole subject is avoided. Why? I can only guess it’s because the subject of how and why the government should help people down on their luck is so culturally and politically toxic today that 2005’s filmmakers didn’t want to deal with it. In 1977, they could make fun of the red tape and bureaucracy of welfare and unemployment benefits without fear of sparking a death match between conservatives and liberals.
I imagine this is how most of Carrey's co-stars look at him on set for most of the time. "No, Jim, I don't want to watch you do Fire Marshal Bill again."
The original movie also has Jane turn to her parents for money, only to be refused. It’s become a wonderful scene in retrospect because you can tell that in 1977, the scene was supposed to be all about how Jane’s parents are ridiculous and don’t understand the challenges of the then-modern world. It’s a scene built on the desiccated remains of the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” slogan of the 1960s. A generation removed, you can see Jane’s parents are actually acting in a very wise and appropriate manner despite the film’s effort to make them look silly and contemptible. Again in 2005, neither Dick nor Jane appear to have any parents or relatives at all. Why leave out that scene when they recreate so many others from the original? I suspect it’s because, lacking the generation gap attitude to fall back on, they couldn’t conceive of any way to write the scene that didn’t make Dick and Jane look like wasteful spendthrifts. The remake is fully committed to Dick and Jane being innocent victims. The original was far more willing to consider they might bear some responsibility for what’s happened to them.
I’ve got a couple of other points. One is the most depressing yet and the other is rather weird. In 1977, when Dick Harper loses his job, he falls in with some illegal Latino immigrants who work the low-paying and difficult jobs native-born Americans don’t want to touch. In 2005, when Dick Harper loses his job, he falls in with some illegal Latino immigrants who work the low-paying and difficult jobs native-born Americans don’t want to touch. 28 years later, which for those keeping score is 7 Presidential elections and 14 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, and not one blessed thing has been done about the issue. If anything, these movies display a failure of immigration policy that’s getting worse. In 1977, the illegals are just like a poor underclass. They’re part of society, just a part that has to be on watch for La Migra. In 2005, the illegals are like a sub-class that lives and works in an entirely different reality than white America.
The weird bit is when a transsexual shows up in the original. Dick is standing in line for unemployment benefits and the person ahead of him is a pre-op male transsexual seeking the same benefits for being fired from his/her job. It’s a weird scene because I have no Earthly idea what it’s supposed to mean or signify. The transsexual doesn’t do or say anything truly funny. There doesn’t appear to be any joke or punchline to their appearance in the story. Dick then refers to the transsexual with an anti-gay slur that would get you sent to sensitivity training today, only to be corrected by the government clerk that a transsexual and a homosexual are not the same.
This woman is over 80 years old in this photo. We really are living in a sci-fi future and just don't realize it.
The scene doesn’t serve any thematic purpose. Nothing comes up later in the story connected to or referencing it. It doesn’t make any sense in the context of the film to make Dick look bad for using the anti-gay slur but the scene is also too straightforward to believe the audience is supposed to sympathize with Dick, like TV viewers did with Archie Bunker. And yet, the transsexual behaves in a stereotypical effeminate manner. There’s no internal or external logic for why the scene exists.
Oh, and I can’t forget about the endings. In 1977, Dick sees his old boss testifying before Congress and lying about not giving out bribes as a standard business practice. Jane gets the idea of stealing the bribe money Dick’s old boss keeps in his office and they use their newly acquired criminal experience to do it. When they’re caught, Dick and Jane call the police themselves. You see, if they’re caught with the money, Dick’s boss would have to explain where it came from and that would bring down his whole corrupt business. It’s a sly way of driving home who the big-time criminals really are in the story.
In 2005, Dick and Jane see one of the corporate executives who helped the CEO plunder the company of 400 million dollars and cost Dick his job. Dick bullies him until the executive comes up with a plan to steal that 400 million back from the CEO. The criminal skills that Dick and Jane have developed have nothing at all to do with making the plan a success. It’s not even their idea. And they don’t even steal the money for themselves. Instead, they put it into a special fund to pay back all the people screwed over by the CEO and they give the CEO credit for setting up the fund, making him wildly popular.
In 1977, Dick’s boss isn’t arrested. He’s not defamed or humiliated. That’s part of the movie’s basic message. The game is rigged and you can’t change that but with some guts and luck, the little guy can still come out ahead. I can’t make hide nor hair of what 2005’s Fun with Dick and Jane is trying to say.
If all you want is a laugh, go with the more recent film. If you want to watch something with a bit of substance and bite, give Segal and Fonda a gander.
Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)
Written by Davie Giler, Jerry Belson and Mordecai Richier.
Directed by Ted Kotcheff.
Starring George Segal, Jane Fonda, Ed McMahon, Richard Gautier, Allan Miller, Hank Garcia, John Dehner and Sean Frye.
Fun with Dick and Jane (2005)
Written by Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller.
Directed by Dean Parisot.
Starring Jim Carrey, Tea Leoni, Alec Baldwin, Richard Jenkins, John Michael Higgins, Carlos Jacott and Aaron Michael Drozin.