Sunday, March 20, 2005

DVD review Jane Fonda's Fun With Dick & Jane

Fun With Dick and Jane is a funny movie with many points. Readers on budgets should take note that we found copies at the library on videocassette and DVD. This film came out in 1976 (and is being remade currently) and stars Jane Fonda and George Segal. Ol' Big Ed McMahon, who's never showed up at our doorsteps with a Publisher's Clearing House check of any kind, has a supporting role.

Here's the basic plot. The economy is tanking (sound familiar) and Dick's boss calls him in to fire him. That's the first scene, we haven't destroyed the movie for you. Dick (Segal) and Jane (Fonda) are an upper-middle-class couple with a kid and a dog. As Dick announces his firing, the maid knows there's trouble but Dick's sure he'll get another job quickly. Jane comes up with ideas to economize like dropping the book of the month club and not heating the pool.

Quickly, it becomes obvious that no one's hiring. Jane manages to get a job as a runway model in a store and loses it quickly (don't miss the runway show for some good slapstick) and there left with an economy that's falling apart, no jobs and bills piling up. Especially note when the landscapers come by to collect the plants and roll up the lawn. File that scene away for your own use because if our current economy doesn't do a turn around quickly, we may all be needing a way to save face in front of the neighbors.

Fonda and Segal make a great comedy team and watching the film you may regret that they never reteamed. Though Fonda and Redford always worked well and had a strong chemistry, Segal brings his own bottle to the party. It's hard not to like Segal onscreen because whether he's working opposite Mary Tyler Moore, Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni, Patricia Arquette, et al in Flirting With Disaster, Goldie Hawn in The Dutchess & The Dirtwater Fox or the gang from the TV show Just Shoot Me, he's a generous comedic actor. He never steps on someone else's laughs and scores his own even with a less than funny line.

Segal's the master of the studied response. It's not a "slow burn" -- the sort that W. C. Fields is famous for -- so much as it's a considered reaction and he uses it perfectly for comic delight in many films. Though it's doubtful he can play any role in the world (despite the hubris of many actors), he's at home in comedies that allow his responses to take a laugh and build on it.

The role of Dick allows him to show a little more than he gets to in some because Dick's life is really screwed when he loses his job. As Segal speaks repeatedly of how the middle class cannot fail because they are the backbone of the country, you see his assurances turn to doubts and then despair and Segal conveys the awakening wonderfully.

It's a caper film and never gets mired down in heavy, over the top dramatics along the line of "Oh! The humanity!" But it's also a film that makes many strong points. Not between chuckles, because you'll laugh hardest when the film's speaking truths.

Fonda's Jane is perfection throughout. She's lived a fairly sheltered life and is initially skeptical of the problems coming down the path. When she gets a look at their finances, a sense of reality sets in and Jane (the character) is much quicker to realize what's going on than her husband Dick. That has to do with the money problems as well as their last shot at survival: robbery.

Dick gets the idea and Jane expresses her doubts but quickly takes an active role and becomes the brains of the team, always a step or two ahead of Dick. Which works well with Fonda's own onscreen persona which is always a little bit ahead of the game.

There's a lot of physical comedy in the film but the thing that stands out the most is the bantering between Fonda and Segal. The strong onscreen chemistry really drives this film and sweetens the laughs.

Segal does a great job with Dick's inner journey, but you found yourself drawn into Jane's. She's gone from college and a distant family to what appears to be a picture-perfect life only to end up on the verge of losing it all. Dick's played the role of provider in the past and Segal perfectly captures the doubts unemployment creates in him. But there are moments when Fonda's the entire show partly due to writing and partly due to the fact that she's one of our most talented living actresses in this country.

The scene where Jane and Dick go to her parents to borrow money is hilarious but it's also a great deal more. Expecting some sort of "news," Jane's parents have already dismissed news of divorce (since Dick and Jane didn't call them to tell them they were getting married) and health so they realize it has to be money. Fonda's timing is perfect in the scene but there's more going on as she captures the embarrassment of having to ask your parents to bail you out and her realization that they probably won't. (They don't.)

In another scene, where Dick has a man over hoping that he'll offer Dick a job, there's not enough money for both to eat and the plan is to tell the man Jane's on a diet. Watch Fonda studying the left over food on the man's plate and then the reaction when he puts his cigar out on the uneaten food and you'll realize how much she adds to even a throw away scene.

Or take a throwaway line when crime starts to pay and they throw a party. Dick's ex-boss (McMahon) and his wife attend. At one point, the wife gets a little more than she can handle from the food. "Is it burning you, Mildred? Oh, that's too bad," Fonda declares in measured tones that pack so much meaning into a throwaway line that you wish she and the actress playing Mildred had more of a scene together. There's so much bitterness and delight in Fonda's delivery that you're longing for more and longing to find out if Mildred's really that oblivious or if she's purposefully refusing to see reality.

Fonda handles the slapstick on the runway perfectly but there's so much more to her physicality in this film. Watch the way she moves in the car theft scenes and the way she adds details like repeatedly looking around to make sure no one's seeing them. Note the way she holds her head and the glasses perched on her nose when she's gone through the bank statements and bills to discover that they have no assets. (Other than, as she points out, a sun in the morning and the moon at night.) Her crossed arm, skeptical stance as the crime spree begins also enriches the laughs from the dialogue. Or the way she strides purposefully and hopefully after she lands her first job. And don't miss the good-bye kiss she gives to her father.

But along with the physicality she brings to the role, notice her eyes. In her second comedy since the one-two punch of They Shoot Horses Don't They? and Klute, Fonda brings the deeper meaing she'd been using in drama roles to bear in this comedy. She's firing on all cylinders and delivering a masterful performance that works on so many levels and presents a fully fleshed out woman.

In the lead up to the release of Monster-in-Law (starring Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michal Vartan and Wanda Sykes), we've been noting comedies starring Jane Fonda. With Monster-In-Law set to open May 13th, we will be noting Nine to Five. Of all the e-mailed suggestions, the request for a review of Nine to Five is the one that has come in the most often. We'll be noting other comedy performances as well and working towards Nine to Five (which we intend to save for the last review).

Larry in St. Paul e-mailed asking if we were trying to build excitement for the release of the Monster-in-Law. Fonda's return to films after fifteen years (Stanley & Iris was released in 1990) is excitement enough if you ask us. What we're trying to do is highlight an incredible artist and make sure that when the film comes out you're aware of how many times Fonda's made you laugh onscreen.

We're also firmly in the Fond'a-Fonda camp and feel the need to stand up and be counted. We'll be seeing Monster-in-Law on opening night. If you're regularly reading what's posted here, we hope you'll be there as well.
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