Two high-profile comedy remakes are hitting the big screen over the holidays. But for those of you who can't wait, or don't feel like dealing with the multiplex, the original versions of both "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "The Producers" are well worth checking out on DVD.
1977 was a landmark year for movies, featuring releases like "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Annie Hall," "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Saturday Night Fever." Snuggled in among those blockbusters was a little comedy called "Fun With Dick and Jane," starring George Segal and Jane Fonda as the Harpers, an upwardly mobile suburban couple who find themselves suddenly overextended when they both lose their jobs. When various obstacles keep them from finding new employment, they turn to armed robbery and find it not only pays the bills, but provides catharsis (via sticking it to the man) and adds excitement to their marriage.
The movie's loaded with comedic gems. Landscapers repossess Dick and Jane's past-due lawn. As the Harpers rob the (then-monopolistic "Ma Bell") phone company, the disgruntled customers waiting in line burst into cheers.
When a fast food cashier asks how everything was, Dick points a gun in his face, prompting the McWorker to say, "That bad, huh?" Dick approaches a Tower Records employee and says, "There's something wrong with this record — it's got a gun in it," revealing the weapon concealed in an LP sleeve. (Try doing that with a CD jewel case!)
But what may play even better in 2005 than it did 28 years ago is the climax, in which the Harpers rob the embezzling boss who fired Dick. Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon is perfectly sleazy in a rare acting role as Charlie Blanchard, the slimy aeronautics executive who gets his comeuppance in the end. Modern audiences might well find deep enjoyment in seeing a corporate CEO stand by helplessly as his ill-gotten wealth walks out the door with the quasi-Robin Hoods, Dick and Jane.
"FwDaJ" was one of the first movies to deal with the notion that so-called "job security" in the corporate world was becoming an oxymoron. Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the concept doesn't need to be altered to fit 2005. We wonder if the filmmakers of this year's model were tempted to have the new Dick, Jim Carrey, working for Enron or Tyco.
A far-better-known offering of a soon-to-be-remake is Mel Brooks' original version of "The Producers." The 1968 classic tells of unscrupulous theatrical producer Max Bialystock who teams with meek accountant Leo Bloom to intentionally put on the world's worst play. The idea: If they can con lovelorn old ladies into investing a million bucks in a thousand-dollar bomb, the play will never show a profit and they can keep the money. Ironically, the chosen dud, "Springtime for Hitler," turns into an unintentionally comic smash, leaving Bialystock and Bloom in deep accounting trouble.
The outrageous Zero Mostel stars as the pudgy, combed-over Max, a man brimming with life and larceny, lusting for the financial success he once had. (In one of the film's ingeniously observed comic details, he's even reduced to wearing a cardboard belt.) Leo Bloom is played by a young Gene Wilder with a charming mixture of intelligence and high strung naiveté. The two actors riff and play off of each other with a hilarious chemistry that's rarely been matched onscreen. There are wordless reaction shots of the two that elicit more laughs than every line of hilarity in, oh, say, "Taxi."
The rest of the casting is equally brilliant. Dick Shawn as burnt-out actor Lorenzo St. DuBois (wearing a Campbell-soup-can necklace) is wildly clueless as the man who would be führer. Newcomer Lee Meredith is a quintessential swingin' 60s chick as Ulla, the twistin', non-English speaking Swedish receptionist whose work methods reduce more than one man to uttering a helpless, "Ahh-oooh-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa!"
If "The Producers" has any fault, it's that its take on the counterculture plays like uninformed parody. As funny as he is, Shawn's Lorenzo feels almost like a Bob Hope parody of an LSD-fueled youth movement, four generations removed. Still, this is a most minor complaint.
"The Producers" was Mel Brooks' first film as a director and (with all due respect to "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles") remains his best. It's a near-perfect movie that manages to poke fun at showbiz, sexuality, greed and, of course, Nazis. It's refreshingly politically incorrect to the Nth degree — to the point that it's hard to imagine the film (or the blockbuster play) being made today for the first time.
In fact, Brooks faced much resistance from Jewish groups, from Hollywood, from distributors and from critics. But he had a vision and stuck to it — although he did, in fact, change the title from "Springtime for Hitler" to "The Producers" — and time has proven the film to be an undisputed classic.
Swing on over to your Netflix queue and add both of these films. While very much products of their times, both "The Producers" and "Fun With Dick and Jane" hold up as solid comedies. Then you can impress your relatives at holiday gatherings by contrasting Fonda's and Tea Leoni's Jane along with Segal's and Carrey's ...
OK, scratch that.
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