Joe Dirt

(Dennie Gordon, USA, 2001)


This is an extremely odd entry in the contemporary annals of trash comedy. It covers plenty of familiar territory – reminders of the Saturday Night Live school of humour, scatological jokes, pastiches of awful pop culture styles. But, like Say It Isn't So (2001), it stalls on a new and troublesome element for the genre: social class.

Co-writer David Spade (TV's Just Shoot Me) stars as Joe. He is a loser stuck back in the styles of the '70s, topped with a mullet haircut (actually a wig stuck to his skull at birth, as he patiently explains) and driven by a fierce love for Eddie Money and other rock heroes.

Joe's life story begins when, as a child, he is separated from his parents. His tireless attempts to find them constitute a pilgrim's progress in which he is constantly disappointed and publicly humiliated. The abjection of his condition is marked not only by his name but the fact that he frequently finds himself in intimate proximity to faecal matter.

Of course, Joe is trailer trash, and normally this would be the starting point for some rousing, proletarian comedy aimed squarely at the suits and puritans of the establishment. But not here.

During his job as a cleaner at a radio station, Joe finds himself suddenly on air during the live broadcast of Zander (Dennis Miller), a smarmy, smug, urban, middle class comedian. Punctuated by lines like "So your name is Dirt and your life is crap, am I right?", Joe narrates his biography. Zander's entourage howls with derisive delight.

By setting up this structure, Spade and director Dennie Gordon try to have their comedy every which way, pitching it to two broad audiences simultaneously. On the one hand, Joe is an Everyman, and eventually a populist hero – the film is full of clumsy inserts of the American people listening to their radios, rapt. On the other hand, no opportunity is wasted to mock this character and allow viewers to feel superior to him.

It is an ugly and uncomfortable strategy, reeking of bad faith. Spade is unable to ever escape his own ironic self-consciousness as a performer. This supposedly star-making vehicle lacks both the charm of the best work of Adam Sandler (here an executive producer) or the racy cleverness of Mike Myers' parodies.

Diehard fans of trash comedies will find only one element to savour: the surreal presence of Christopher Walken (King of New York, 1990) as an ex-criminal under witness protection.

MORE Gordon: What a Girl Wants

© Adrian Martin May 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search