Ilike that little Davie Spade. He’s like some child actor from the ’40s all grown up. His smart aleck “Hollywood Minute” was one of the funniest segments on Saturday Night Live. Like so many SNL-ers, he took his modicum of fame and moved on to bigger things like movies. In Joe Dirt, which he co-wrote, he plays a vulnerable boy-man abandoned by his parents as an 8-year-old. After being left in a garbage can at the Grand Canyon, little Joe Dirt has to fend for himself. He was so unloved as a child that his parents wouldn’t even let him use their last name and made him go by Dirt instead. Now everyone treats him like dirt.
Spade’s winsome personality carries what is otherwise a very silly movie that has its share of gross-out humor, complete with sewage showers. You can definitely leave your taste and brain on the shelf for this one. In fact, that’s a prerequisite.
Spade’s hard-luck Joe Dirt is a trailer trash idiot, a 1970s throwback who wears a mullet wig with fringe bangs, pork chop sideburns and a scraggly goatee that looks like it just sprouted. He listens to Lynyrd Skynyrd, drives a rusty old car, wears acid-washed jeans and T-shirts screaming things like “I choked Linda Lovelace.” The butt of everyone’s jokes, he’s a sad little fellow with a hole in his heart and without a friend in the world. All he wants is stability and a home. He’s kind of like Little Orphan Annie, a homeless waif looking for some place to call his own. It’s an age-old theme. Think of Tobey Maguire in The Cider House Rules, another orphan trying to make his way in the world, looking for love and acceptance.
Joe Dirt is trying to make his way as well, only in this case, the hero’s journey takes a new and ridiculous twist. On his quest to discover what happened at the Grand Canyon that day 15 years earlier, Joe Dirt suffers through one cartoonish peril after another. He’s narrowly missed by a meteor, which turns out to be a “Boeing Bomb,” i.e. frozen airline sewage, which he totes around in a red Radio Flyer wagon. He looks just like a Little Rascal or a character from Peanuts. He’s constantly picked on by bigger kids who think he’s gay.
On his cross-country search, he takes a job at an alligator farm in Louisiana; meets an Indian (Adam Beach) who owns a fireworks stand that sells only snakes and sparklers; runs a Ferris wheel at a traveling carnival; and works on an oil rig in the Dakotas. He’s also held captive by a cross-dressing serial killer and floats away in a giant balloon shaped like a molar. With a little more luck, he also finds a love interest named Brandy (Brittany Daniel), who bares one of the many midriffs in the show.
The narrative thread in this tale is Joe’s appearance on a radio show after he lands a job as a janitor at a radio station. The smart aleck host (Dennis Miller) puts him on the air as a gag, then gets hooked on Joe’s story and keeps bringing him back to share it with listeners. Miller, employing his trademark mockery, tosses off one-liners like, “1976 called and wants its hair back, Reverb Man.”
Spade fills the film with lots of cameos of his old pals. Kevin Nealon plays a mechanic; Christopher Walken plays a mob boss in the witness protection program working as a high school janitor in the Midwest; and Kid Rock plays a mean-spirited backwoods punk.
Through all the abuse and physical injury heaped on him, Joe Dirt remains unrelentingly upbeat about his plight. His motto: “You gotta keep on keeping on.” To him, life’s a garden. “You gotta dig it.” He may have nothing and he may be worthless in the eyes of everyone else, but his irrepressible optimism gives him a certain charm. He prevails despite it all, and discovers that even a sad-sack like him can find a little happiness.
With anyone but Spade in the self-deprecating role, Joe Dirt would be just another of those insufferable Dumb and Dumber clones. But Spade makes you feel for the little guy. That may not be enough, however, for most people to pay full fare for this ridiculous ride.
Joe Dirt (PG-13) HH Directed by Dennie Gordon. Starring David Spade and Dennis Miller.