Crooks in classic films generally split into a couple of categories: either professional criminals, or people driven by desperate circumstances to commit crimes. There’s another subset where characters steal to get revenge.
Fun with Dick and Jane is a little bit different. Taking place during the recession of the late 1970s, it involves middle-class people who could probably chug along well enough until an economic uptick, but instead resort to crime to maintain their upwardly-mobile lifestyle.
Dick Harper (George Segal) is an aerospace executive who is stunned when his boss Charlie Blanchard (Ed McMahon) fires him. He and his wife Jane (Jane Fonda) at first think this is a mild blip in their lives, and forge ahead with building a pool in their backyard while planning very minor economies to their lifestyle.
Reality soon hits when Dick finds it difficult to get another job right away. Caught working for money under the table, Dick loses his unemployment. Pleas to Jane’s parents for a loan fall on deaf ears. Jane gets a low-paying job but they still need food stamps and the electricity is soon turned off. Desperate, they apply for a high-interest loan.
Gosh, this sounds like the making of a tragedy, doesn’t it? It’s far from it, though. Up to this point, the film is a razor-sharp satire of American middle class life and expectations. Dick is so clueless his Latino co-worker, who he barely spoke to at work, has to show him how to navigate the world unemployed. Their maid rolls her eyes when she overhears them blithely dismiss their situation. While having a meeting at home with a potential employer, a vendor they haven’t paid shows up with a bullhorn and insists on confiscating all their household plants, screaming “Deadbeat!”
While they are applying for the loan, the film takes a quick turn. Thieves show up to rob the loan company. When they run away from the cops, Jane manages to grab two thousand dollars of the stolen money. Rationalizing that the loan company has insurance, they keep it.
When that money is gone, Dick plans to commit a holdup. Jane insists on accompanying him. After several missteps, they successfully rip off an X-rated motel. Giddy with their success, they begin to regularly commit stick-ups. Soon their confiscated lawn and pool are restored and they are throwing big parties. All this spending leads them to plan one big score by robbing Dick’s former boss Charlie.
The film got mixed reviews when it first opened, but with the hindsight of the last 40 years of history, it seems close to prescient. It predicts the 1980s ruthless mentality in pursuit of money. (This is brought home most clearly in a scene where Jane throws money out of the car to stop pursuers and causes a riot which is reminiscent of the final scenes of the 1980s comedy Ruthless People.) It’s also possible to see it as a prototype for TV series like Breaking Bad and Weeds. Dick and Jane don’t commit crime so they can survive—they do it so they won’t look bad in front of the neighbors.
Segal and Fonda are terrific—they show both the love and frustration married people have with each other through clever banter usually reserved for romcoms. Some might complain that the movie makes their characters too likable, and that’s fair. But lets be honest, crime committed in the name of maintaining the American Dream is secretly admired by some. There are those who expect poor people to remain poor, and despise their situation because they assume it is one of their own making. Dick and Jane’s pseudo-poverty, on the other hand, is discomfiting.
The robbery scenes—both the failed and successful ones—are hilarious, especially when Dick tries to hold up a drug store and the pharmacist misunderstands what he wants. Another stand-out scene is when Jane tries to get a loan out of her parents, and all she gets is a lecture on self-reliance. Assuring Jane if they come through this without help they will be set for life, her mother declares as she leaves, “I’m so happy for you!”
One wonders if her parents would be proud of the way Dick and Jane relied on themselves to remain affluent members of the middle class.