"I don’t talk about child stars in general," rants former Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman. "I don’t talk about my past. It has been such a hindrance to my developing any kind of career. I would take it back in a minute if there were a time machine. [In fact, if I had it to do over], none of this lifetime would have happened."
To get a sense for what Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star feels like, just merge Coleman’s bitter sentiment with the flippant humor David Spade has become famous for, mix in a shot of Jon Lovitz’ jovial self-deprecation and garnish with a dollop of the classically staid Rob Reiner. Spade plays Dickie, a 35-year-old man burdened by past success, impoverished by wild living, and emotional void after decades of lust and conditional love. He was the child star of a 1970s sitcom. Now he’s a valet at a Hollywood restaurant. He was adored by millions. Now he’s running to fetch their car keys. He was a speeding comet. Now he’s puttering around the block.
Desperate to restart his career, he finagles a pre-audition meeting with movie director Rob Reiner, only to be told he’s too inhuman to be cast. "You don’t even know what normal is. You completely missed out on the basic foundation of adulthood, which is a childhood," Reiner gently tells him. You have nothing to draw upon to play this part. Indeed, little Dickie never even experience a normal Christmas, and his mother only loved him when he made lots of money. Determined to prove to Reiner that he can grow up by reclaiming his past, Dickie pays a suburban family to take him in for a month so he can experience what it is to be part of "a family."
positive elements: The big moral to this story hinges on Dickie’s discovery that love beats fame every day of the week. Citing the catchphrase, "There’s no business like show business," the movie ends with the declaration that the more apt slogan is, "There’s no love like real love." Unprepared for how stimulating family life can be, Dickie is floored by even the smallest expressions of love and affection most of us take for granted. When his new "mom" sings him to sleep after he has a nightmare, Dickie turns to his new little "brother" and "sister" and exclaims, "That was probably the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. You feel bad, and your mom actually tries to make you feel not bad!" [Spoiler Warning] When it’s all said and done, and Dickie wins the role of a lifetime in Reiner’s film, he turns it down to stay with his new "family," valuing their love and warmth over the glaring heat of the spotlight. (Unfortunately, Mom’s husband leaves her for another woman; a plot twist that serves Dickie’s purpose quite well, but certainly reflects poorly on the sanctity of marriage.)
When Dickie’s ex-girlfriend finds him in suburbia, she immediately wants to go for a romp in the hay. Because of their sexual past, he’s initially inclined to fall in line with her desires, but ultimately rejects her advances in favor of continuing his new, more innocent, second childhood. Dickie makes lots of crude comments about his new mom, but when she’s demeaned by a neighbor, he sticks up for her. Similarly, he sticks up for his new brother who is being picked on at school. (In both cases, his methods are far from appropriate, but his sentiments are sweet.)
spiritual content: Dickie mocks Jesus when he uses Him as the butt of a joke. His new family doesn’t laugh, though. They just sit and glare at him.
sexual content: Most offensive are two scenes in which a flamboyantly gay man makes passes at Dickie. He uses a Twinkie as a sexual symbol (swallowing it whole), disrobes in front of Dickie and kisses him on the lips. (Dickie later admits to having had homosexual dalliances.) Second to that is a scene in which Dickie prattles on about his new mom’s sexual attributes—in front of her two young children. He even goes so far as to inform them that he wants to "bang" her. To her face, he jokes—with a glint of hopefulness in his eye—about whether she’ll take her top off for him. At a celebrity boxing match, a bikini-clad woman strides around the ring. Dickie appears on the cover of Rolling Stone flanked by mostly nude models. Other women reveal quite a bit of cleavage. Jokes are told about women's breasts, behinds and underwear. A middle-school cheerleader performs a sleazy, Britney Spears-style dance routine. (Remarkably, in this context, Dickie and his new family all express disgust over what they see.) Asked for a photograph by a fan, Dickie sticks a camera down his pants and snaps the shutter several times, making a crude joke about his genitals.
violent content: The movie opens with a celebrity boxing match in which Emmanuel Lewis beats the stuffing out of Dickie Roberts. Dickie accidentally rolls his car over a steep embankment (it explodes at the bottom). Closing elevator doors smash into a woman when Dickie refuses to hold the door for her. While learning how to be a child again, Dickie wreaks havoc with a garden hose, a bicycle and a Slip ‘n’ Slide. He throws a champagne cork at his ex-girlfriend (it hits her in the head). Later, she mimics him by throwing a bottle at her new beau. A bully repeatedly thumps Dickie’s brother on the head with his finger.
crude or profane language: Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady of The Brady Bunch fame) caps the film by cheerfully singing the f-word. Elsewhere, there are one s-word, about 30 milder profanities and close to 20 misuses of God’s name. Supposedly, a catchphrase used by Dickie’s childhood television character (in the ‘70s) consisted of an "inside-out" swear word ("Nucking Futs"). That almost-obscenity is used verbally and in print throughout the film. Dickie also teaches his new siblings "a secret way to swear," telling them to say, among other things, "shizzit." The school bully calls Dickie’s sister a "little b--ch." Dickie makes obscene gestures.
drug and alcohol content: Dickie tries to network with other stars by crashing AA meetings and pretending to be an alcoholic. He also tries to persuade his young "siblings" to drink a six-pack of beer with him (they end up drinking root beer). He regales them with tales of the rampant drug abuse he insists is common among young Hollywood stars, but follows up with an admonition to stay away from the "sniffy jiffy." Wine, champagne, beer and cigarettes all make appearances.
other negative elements: Dickie verbally abuses his new family’s neighbor and the young bully at his brother’s school. He spends a great deal of time teaching his new siblings how to be devious (one stunt he pulls involves washing the neighbor’s dead rabbit to divert blame for the creature’s demise). He talks about having put a whistle and a light bulb "up his butt." He borrows a car and takes it for a spin while working as a valet. In doing so he declares, "You know what, you never get anywhere in life without bending the rules every now and then."
Dickie plays low-stakes poker with his friends. He has a burping contest with his siblings. His new dad, who doesn’t get much screen time, is disrespectful toward his wife and kids, stays out late drinking with his office buddies and ultimately leaves his family for another woman. A gaggle of former child stars sings a chorus over the credits that repeatedly expresses attitudes of violence toward insensitive fans.
conclusion: This movie shares one big character trait with the stereotypical ne’er-do-well former child star: It will make millions of people around the world shake their heads in wonder over what might have been. So much potential and so little to show for it. The story details the damage caused by neglectful and greedy parents. ("I know I’m all screwed up. I have no center," Dickie laments.) It paints a vibrant picture of how necessary tight family units are. ("If I’m a star my mom will come home," he tells his new mom. "Dickie, it’s not supposed to work that way," she responds. "I know," he says sadly, "but can I hope for anything different?") It even celebrates "prudes." But then, while the cake is still in the oven, so to speak, it frantically jumps up and down in the kitchen making it fall flat. Crude language and vile expressions rattle the stove. Sexual joking pounds on the floor. And what parents may have the hardest time with are the constant attempts to plant unsavory ideas in the minds of young kids. "Swearing without swearing" is only the beginning. Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star exults in a whole host of seedy things sure to make a strong, negative impact on children everywhere—whether they’re aspiring stars or not.