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Spade turns up crud in 'Joe Dirt'

0 awards -- and deservedly so

0 awards -- and deservedly so

In this story:

Sad sack janitor

Stupid misadventures

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By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- The newspaper ads promoting "Joe Dirt" -- a miserable, free-form trailer-trash parody starring David Spade -- boast that the picture has received "0 Directors Guild Awards, 0 Producer's Guild nominations, and 0 Golden Globe Awards." This self-deprecation might be amusing if "Joe Dirt" suggested that the people who made it are talented individuals who simply dropped the ball.

But this script never had a chance of being converted into a decent picture, and they filmed it anyway. So, rather than be criticized for blowing it, either the producers or the studio decided to pretend it was all intentional.

The question needs to be asked, then: Why do American audiences accept the stance that silly movies have to be terrible by definition? There's nothing enjoyable about "Joe Dirt." Absolutely nothing. Spade's generic nonperformance is the centerpiece of a very wobbly story, and he simply isn't enough of an actor to keep you interested.

Unlike Steve Martin, who used to bring real invention to this kind of thing, Spade's comic persona is based on whiney listlessness. That may work in supporting roles on TV, but it pretty much ruins the party when blown up to big-screen dimensions.

Sad sack janitor

Spade is Joe Dirt, a Los Angeles-based neo-redneck who works as a ritually derided janitor at an FM radio station. Joe is forever listening to working-class rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Doobie Brothers. He drives a rust-covered heap and sports a ghastly wig that suggests somebody has scalped a mid-1970s heavy metal guitar player. Joe explains that his skull didn't fully grow together when he was a child, so his mother used the wig to cover his exposed brain. Then his skull sealed up, trapping the wig on his noggin.


One day, Joe meets Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller), a shock jock who decides to interview him on the air and turn his sorry, ridiculous life story into drive-time entertainment. Joe is a walking amalgamation of stupidity and "can't win for losing" karma; Kelly's listeners are fascinated by his tale of woe. (This seems especially unlikely until you realize that there wouldn't be a movie if everyone had switched to a different station. Too bad they didn't.)

When he was a little boy, Joe tells listeners, his parents left him at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The rest of his life has been a constant search for his family, one that's peppered with enough middling action and wretched potty jokes to make the story 90 minutes long. This includes Joe's unannounced love for a sexy farm girl named Brandy (Brittany Daniel), and moments of abuse from Brandy's bullying suitor (Kid Rock). Rock isn't bad and he isn't good. He's just Kid Rock.

Stupid misadventures

When Joe leaves Brandy behind to search for his mama and his daddy, he encounters a fireworks-selling American Indian (Erik Per Sullivan) who's going broke because he only stocks sparklers and boring "snakes." Then Joe moves on to janitorial work at a junior high school, where he meets a head custodian (Christopher Walken) who may have a criminal past.

There aren't any segues in the story, in case you're wondering, just visual equivalents of the word "then."

Though his work in "Joe Dirt" is pretty drab, you have to give Walken credit for occasionally poking fun at his overwhelming Christopher Walken-ness. This performance, and his current flying-and-dancing appearance in Spike Jonze's terrific video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," establishes him as a self-aware actor who only gets post-modern when he consciously chooses to do so. He's not a permanent joke, in other words.

If only "Joe Dirt"'s script (by Spade and Fred Wolf) could be so double-edged. It's barely even single-edged, with nothing approaching sharp wit.

"Joe Dirt"'s flashback structure is just as lazy as the humor. It allows director Dennie Gordon to hop, skip, and jump through the material without having to develop the characters or build even a semblance tension.

It's not asking too much, by the way, to expect such things ... even when you're watching a patently absurd movie. Check out "Raising Arizona" (1987) to see how overt stupidity can be handled with verbal wit, momentum, and a welcome implication that the audience itself isn't composed of idiots. If "Raising Arizona" is sophomoric, "Joe Dirt" is struggling through pre-school.

There's not enough gumption in "Joe Dirt" for it to be genuinely offensive. A dog's testicles get stuck to a porch, and septic tank goo spews onto Joe's head. Is it possible to close America until further notice? Rated PG-13. 92 minutes.

David Spade enjoys the animated life
December 14, 2000
Critical Mass
May 3, 1999

Joe Dirt

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