See Dick Shred Documents; Jim, Téa Send Up Enron’s Fall

Dean Parisot’s Fun with Dick and Jane is credited to a screenplay by Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller, based on a story by Gerald Gaiser, Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller. A film with the same title (and reportedly the same basic plot) was Ted Kotcheff’s 1977 vehicle for Jane Fonda and George Segal, but I suspect—without having seen this original version—that it lacked the comic bite and satiric timeliness of the remake, which finds Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni in the Segal and Fonda roles.

This is to say that the current Fun with Dick and Jane has turned out to be, at least for me, the happiest and funniest surprise of the recently concluded and mercilessly overbooked 2005 Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Boxing Day movie season. Curiously, the movie seems to have done better at the box office than it has with most of the critics, some of whom have attacked it for its perceived slights to Latinos and migrant workers. But what deterred me at first from rushing out to see it was the uncommonly inane coming attractions, which seemed fixated on the farcical frenzies generated by the two leads in their amateurish store and bank robberies. In fact, the previews managed to conceal what the subject of the movie really was—no less than a fictional rendition of the financial follies at work in the nonfiction classic Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Another factor in the hitherto tepid critical response may have been with the complacency with which many of us have come to regard Mr. Carrey in his principled refusal to limit himself to the safe consistency of knockabout farce. He is just good-looking and versatile enough to make it as a straight actor, but the wild mood swings between his vehicles have carried with them certain risks of at least seeming to be overreaching. After all, even the most inventive shtick occasionally sputters from the lack of an adequate comic correlative, and Mr. Carrey’s very versatility makes his persona too smart for the easy sentiment of the nebbish.

In Fun with Dick and Jane, what helps him to overcome the curse of his own virtuosity is the sickeningly plutocratic degeneracy of our corporation-dominated society over the past 30 years. An entry in the movie’s production notes tells us: “According to recent economic studies, a generation ago the average chief executive made 40 times as much as the average worker. Today it’s nearly 400 times as much.”

This is the real story behind Dick and Jane’s descent into criminality, and one wonders why the coming attractions and advance publicity didn’t play up the movie’s timeliness. Was it considered too painful a subject for holiday moviegoing audiences to contemplate? For all the darkness and paranoia peddled in movies and on television these days, the sheer economic and social injustice of our system is seldom given the frank treatment it has received in Fun with Dick and Jane. Not that Mr. Carrey’s and Ms. Leoni’s Dick and Jane Harper start out as any kind of political revolutionaries, or even social malcontents: They’re introduced almost cartoon-style in their pseudo-idyllic Southern Californian suburban paradise, along with their lovable little boy, Billy (Aaron Michael Drozin), and their affable Hispanic maid, Blanca (Gloria Garayua). The Harpers are especially proud of their expensive and well-manicured lawn, one of the finest in their subdivision.

Ms. Leoni’s droll, deadpan manic-depressive mannerisms make a good comic fit with Mr. Carrey’s more conclusive style. This is her best part since David O. Russell’s 1996 Flirting with Disaster. The absurdist tendencies of the movie become evident well before financial disaster strikes: Jane’s job in a travel agency requires her to listen to her most ridiculously disgruntled customers yapping at her over omnipresent earphones. Now that everyone in the world seems to have a cell phone, Jane is compelled to comfort a client who has tried to enter Russia without ever having applied for a passport or visa. Naturally, she is waiting only for Dick’s long-deferred promotion to a vice-presidency at his company, Globodyne, to quit her own job so as to spend more time with Billy.

For Dick’s part, the promotion seems inevitable (after 18 years of fruitless yearning) when he is summoned to the top-floor office of Globodyne president Jack McCallister (Alec Baldwin) by the firm’s second-in-command, Frank Banscombe (Richard Jenkins). Before Dick can get a word in edgewise about Globodyne’s financial condition, he is upstaged by a series of dynamically changing graphics of Globodyne’s earnings and profits shortfalls, with a plunging stock-price arrow moving downward to zero even as Dick sputters about “statistics.”

To cap Dick’s onscreen humiliation, none other than Ralph Nader pops up onscreen to harangue him for his corporate irresponsibility. Dick arrives back in the Globodyne building just in time to see McCallister fleeing the scene in his rooftop helicopter. The rest of the building is pure chaos, with employees ranting and raving and sobbing amid orgies of panicked document shredding. This end-of-the-world atmosphere is funny, if only as a parody of all the other doomsday scenarios being thrust upon us all the time these days.

The point is that Mr. Parisot, his cast and his collaborators have established the existence of a world very much like our own at every stage of the movie’s Enron-like debacle with enough style and conviction to make what would otherwise have been distasteful criminality seem like an eminently reasonable option. Indeed, the robberies themselves are less hilarious than they are pathetic attempts to find honest jobs at reasonable salaries in a supposedly expanding economy. There is a Big Lie being told us about the good times in which we live, and Fun with Dick and Jane is one of the few cinematic attacks on that lie.

The laughs arise, however, from the imaginative connectivity of the gags. For example, a seemingly throwaway bit of “cuteness” involves Billy’s tendency to pick up Spanish phrases from the maid Blanca. Much later, Dick is in line with other migrant workers looking for day labor when immigration agents swarm around the illegals. Dick has lost his wallet and is unable to prove his own citizenship. In desperation, he asks the arresting officer to call his home in order to establish his identity. Unfortunately, Billy picks up the phone with a proudly bilingual “Olé!” and Dick is shoved into the police van.

But the funniest image in the film is that of a scattering of recently discharged executives, armed with their briefcases, all showing up for an advertised employment opportunity and “competing,” as always, to be first up the stairway in a mêlée involving briefcases, water-coolers and sheer manual force—only to find, at the end of their struggles, a long line of job applicants without briefcases. For her part, the equally desperate Jane takes part in a Botox-like experiment after signing an insurance waiver, only to find herself one of the three out of 16 applicants to be temporarily disfigured (a “reasonable” percentage, in the soothing words of the marketer).

Still, it is only when Dick and Jane have sold all their furniture, had their utilities cut off and even their lawn repossessed that they think of crime as a last resort. The tipping point arrives with a 24-hour eviction notice encased in a red envelope.

Dick’s first hold-ups strain for laughs with the familiar slapstick of complete ineptitude, but things pick up when Jane becomes restive about being restricted to driving duties and takes part in a cavalcade of Bonnie and Clyde costume changes, including a gender-switching riff on Sonny and Cher. Banks become their favorite target as Dick develops solo routines based more on trickery and chutzpah than the threat of force. On one occasion, he finds himself inside an open vault on the verge of success when his routine is disrupted by another gang of disguised bank robbers, who are quickly apprehended by the police. When the intruders are unmasked, they turn out to be some of Dick’s now-unemployed former colleagues at Globodyne.

It is perhaps this revelatory incident that inspires Dick to attempt his supreme bank caper, which provides the film’s emotionally and politically satisfying fantasy ending after the requisite number of missteps and pratfalls. Just this once, a kind of justice is done on a scale that is clearly beyond the Darwinian dimensions of our current economic system. Dick and Jane thereby emerge comically and sentimentally as the unlikeliest of collectivist crusaders.

Reliable Rake

Lasse Hallström’s Casanova, from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, based on a story by Kimberly Simi and Michael Cristofer, floats along pleasantly enough, like a Venetian gondola capacious enough to convey lovers, parents, bishops and other sundry costumed denizens of 18th-century Venice to their various destinations. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was the legendary seducer whose very name is now defined in the dictionary as “a man who is very fond of women and has many love affairs.” That is true, at least up to a point, with the Casanova played by Heath Ledger in this outrageously feminist-revisionist version of the character. This is to say that he starts out promisingly enough, by ravishing the novices in a nunnery before fleeing from a posse of imperial guards or some such. But very soon he becomes enraptured by a Portia-like changeling, Francesca Bruni, who occasionally dresses and duels like a man. Hence, by this far-fetched trick in the plot, the historical spokesman for libertinism and licentiousness in the eternal battle of the sexes is transformed into a romantic monogamist. If I were to tell you how this has been managed, I would deprive you of the undeniable pleasure of following all the unexpected and not entirely uninteresting twists in the tangled plot of mistaken identities in a brazenly anti-clerical narrative (at least by old Production Code standards).

Mr. Ledger’s performance here won’t hurt and will probably help his quest for an acting Oscar, at least among those Academy voters who chose to spend their time watching a non-contending movie. If anything, Mr. Ledger’s is almost too authoritative a characterization for so frivolous an enterprise. Yet its very frivolity is a guarantor of its entertaining lightness. Saucy Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni supplies a plausible cause for Casanova’s conversion. Natalie Dormer as Victoria, his allegedly virginal bride-to-be, literally chews the furniture to great comic effect as a closet nymphomaniac, while Jeremy Irons brings a funereal tone to the proceedings as Bishop Pucci, the Grand Inquisitor from Rome, who is treated with surprising levity and disrespect by the terminally fun-loving Venetians.

Oliver Platt is the latest performer to put on a fat suit and make-up to play Paprizzio, the Roman lard merchant who has been promised to Francesca by her penniless mother (Lena Olin). Paprizzio is manipulated in turn by Casanova and Bishop Pucci in their cat-and-mouse games throughout the Venetian canals, until the fitting climax at a masked carnival ball. Paprizzio, of course, loses Francesca to the wily but ultimately reformed Casanova, but in the end he is consoled and willingly bedded by her always practical mother instead. So everyone is happy, more or less, except the dour Grand Inquisitor.

Mr. Hallström manages all the intrigues with a measure of verve and sweetness, aided in no small measure by the venturesome cinematography of Oliver Stapleton, combining intimacy and scope; the Baroque musical arrangements of Alexandre Desplat; and the evocative costume design of Jenny Beavan. All in all, the notorious Casanova has been tastefully sanitized and feminized in a manner more appropriate for the 21st century than the 18th. Mr. Platt’s Paprizzio stays in the mind for a strangely cherubic geniality that obliterates the offensive ridicule his manufactured girth seems intended to arouse. Overall, Casanova is silly but amusing.

Lost in Translation

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, from a screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the book by Arthur Golden, seems to have lost its critical and commercial gamble in being released as an English-language attraction when most of the English emanating from the lips of its Asian cast is phonetically adequate, but fatally inexpressive and dramatically uninflected. It’s a shame, really, because Ziyi Zhang as the title character is one of the most beautiful and sensual women on the screen, and she manages to make the movie well worth seeing despite its linguistic difficulties.

She is assisted in no small measure by the great Chinese actress Gong Li, from all the Zhang Yimou classics of some years back. Ken Watanabe plays the Chairman, the heroine’s secret love throughout the 30’s and even all the way through World War II and its aftermath, with the inevitable arrival of the Americans (overly intrusive as usual, and even somewhat over-Americanized for the occasion). The sets and costumes and the swirling cinematic canvases they inspire bedazzle the eyes, even when the dialogue is brutalizing the ears.

I kept wondering whether the film would have been any more successful in Japanese, with English subtitles—but the major actresses are Chinese, not Japanese, and this presents another obstacle to plausibility for many people. The subject remained interesting enough to this provincial American to accept and ultimately enjoy the film’s well-worn romanticism, even with its resignedly tired happy ending. The details of the geisha’s seductive grace—with her nimble hands, intense look and swaying, seemingly windswept movement—spoke a language all their own, and one far beyond the permutations of the feeble plot. Ms. Zhang has much less to work with here than she did in Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, but she alone is still worth the price of admission, especially alongside the ageless Ms. Gong.

See Dick Shred Documents;  Jim, Téa Send Up Enron’s Fall