Funnier than it has any right to be, and working from a premise scarcely substantial enough to sustain a variety show sketch, the makers of "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" offer a largely satisfying mix of broad slapstick, seriocomic sentimentality and mostly amusing satirical thrusts at easy targets.

Funnier than it has any right to be, and working from a premise scarcely substantial enough to sustain a variety show sketch, the makers of “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” offer a largely satisfying mix of broad slapstick, seriocomic sentimentality and mostly amusing satirical thrusts at easy targets. Even topliner David Spade, whose purposeful fingernails-on-blackboard obnoxiousness often is too effective for actor’s own good, comes off as ultimately sympathetic lead. Paramount could reap better-than-expected early fall theatrical biz from comedy, especially if baby boomers respond to slew of cameos by real-life former child stars.

Spade shrewdly co-wrote script (with exec producer Fred Wolf) as star vehicle tooled to his familiar film and TV persona as a fey know-it-all armed with venomous sarcasm. He’s perfectly cast as eponymous Dickie Roberts, subject of faux “E! Hollywood True Story” docu that bookends pic.

As a precocious 5-year-old scene-stealer on ’70s sitcom “The Glimmer Gang,” little Dickie was much-loved mini-icon with his very own trademark catchphrase: “It’s nucking futs!” (Sure, nobody could have actually gotten away with that on ’70s TV, but never mind.) As a 35-year-old, however, Dickie is a D-list has-been who chronically stews over long-stalled career while working as valet parker at tony Hollywood eatery.

Dickie’s eccentric affectations — he constantly wears gloves to protect against “infections” — are holdovers from his misspent youth with a boozy stage mother (Doris Roberts). And pathetic attempts at recapturing yesterday’s glory — such as a “Celebrity Boxing” matchup with a brutal Emmanuel Lewis, one of several semi-celebrity cameos — are sufficiently ineffective, and embarrassing, to chase off Dickie’s mercenary girlfriend (Alyssa Milano).

Thanks to his amazingly loyal agent (Jon Lovitz), Dickie gets his last best chance at a comeback when he interviews for the lead in an upcoming pic planned by helmer Rob Reiner (played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Reiner himself). Trouble is, role calls for someone capable of playing a well-rounded grown-up, and, as Dickie missed out on having a childhood, he’s hardly a normal adult.

Undeterred, Dickie sets out to “adopt” an average suburban family, figuring he can learn everything about a “normal” childhood by living with the happy clan. Fortuitously, Dickie finds someone almost as desperate as he: George Finney (Craig Bierko), a failing car dealer who opens his home — and exposes his wife and children — to the one-time child star.

Not surprisingly, wife Grace (Mary McCormack) and middle schoolers Sally (Jenna Boyd) and Sam (Scott) are uneasy about the arrangement. One thing leads to another, however. Dickie begins to bond with Sally and Sam, and tentatively warms toward the neglected Grace. Nothing much that happens next is terribly surprising, but much of it is lightly amusing.

Without hammering away too insistently at the obvious, helmer Sam Weisman (“George of the Jungle”) indirectly underscores the unreality of the “reality” in Dickie’s brave new world. Thanks to canny production design by Dina Lipton, the Finney home looks very much like the set of a typical TV sitcom of 30 or 40 years ago.

Indeed, as Grace, Sally and Sam are written and played, they could pass as co-stars of such a series. (George looks too sinister with his goatee — he would more likely be a mean next-door neighbor.) All of which makes Dickie’s rebirth seem, if not more plausible, then at least weirdly logical.

Another plus is spot-on casting. McCormack is especially appealing in tricky role of Grace, neatly infusing wholesome mom stereotype with subtle but insistent vibe of squeaky-clean sexiness. Reiner deftly overplays sincerity for self-parody, Lovitz generates alternating currents of devotion and desperation, and Edie McClurg makes most of brief scenes as Finney family’s uptight neighbor. Milano, a born-again child star herself, is nicely nasty as Dickie’s faithless girlfriend.

Despite his decidedly uneven record as comic lead (“Lost & Found,” “Joe Dirt”), Spade scores here by revealing a winning vulnerability of character who only gradually transcends whiney self-pity and blithe self-absorption.

Brendan Fraser (star of Weisman’s “George”) is good sport during segment that charts the full depth of Dickie’s shamelessness in pursuit of comeback. Gag recalls scene in “The Player” where Peter Gallagher talks of making key contacts at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

More inside jokes abound at Dickie’s weekly poker games with other former child stars (including real-lifers Leif Garrett and Corey Feldman), whose gripes about current Hollywood heavyweights are flavored with aptly tangy smidgens of professional jealously. Final flourish is often hilarious sing-along showcasing hordes of former sitcom kidstars.

Serviceable production values include smartly chosen Golden Oldies on soundtrack.

Dickie Roberts - Former Child Star

Production

A Paramount release of a Happy Madison production of a Sam Weisman film. Produced by Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo. Executive producer, Fred Wolf. Co-producer: Blair Breard. Directed by Sam Weisman. Screenplay, Fred Wolf, David Spade.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Thomas E. Ackerman; editor, Roger Bondelli; music, Christophe Beck, Waddy Wachtel; music supervisor, Michael Dilbeck; production designer, Dina Lipton; art director, Marc Dabe; set decorator, K.C. Fox; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; sound (Dolby Digital DTS), David Kelson; associate producer, Tom McNulty; assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace 24, Houston, Aug. 14, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Dickie Roberts - David Spade Grace Finney - Mary McCormack Sidney - Jon Lovitz George Finney - Craig Bierko Sally Finney - Jenna Boyd Sam Finney - Scott Tessa Cyndi - Alyssa Milano Peggy - Doris Roberts Rob Reiner - Himself Edie McClurg - Neighbor Leif Garrett - Himself Brendan Fraser - Himself Emmanuel Lewis - Himself
With: Willie Aames, Danny Bonaduce, Dustin Diamond, Corey Feldman, Florence Henderson, Maureen McCormick, Butch Patrick, Dick Van Patten, Marian Ross, Barry Williams.

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