Friday, December 22, 2017

The heightened cartoon-brilliant art direction of "Dick" (1999)

Has anyone checked in with Dick lately? Directed by Andrew Fleming from a script by Fleming and Sheryl Longin, starring young Michelle Williams and even younger Kirsten Dunst as endearingly dumb best friends, Dick came and went in 1999.

Mashing together the teen comedy with political satire is a challenging task and Dick struggles with its premise, especially attempting to answer the question of who is the audience for this movie: Teens living on the cusp of the 21st century, who have little to no knowledge of the Watergate scandal and its myriad of corrupt players? Adults who lived through the 1970s, watching as intrepid journalists and the legal branch took down paranoid would-be despot Richard Milhouse Nixon? No one was sure how to market this one for maximum audience.

One aspect of this film is crystal clear in its premise and its execution—the art direction by Lucinda Zak, who took all that was hideous, deformed, brilliantly muddy and wrong-headed about 1970s style and ran straight down the field with it for touchdown after touchdown with it. If you're looking for a feast of 70s oddities for the eyes, this is your movie; sit back and enjoy.

A slew of amazing comedy talent co-starred as historical figures of the Nixon White House era, including Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward, Bruce McCulloch as Carl Bernstein, Dave Foley as Bob Haldeman, Ana Gasteyer as Rose Mary Woods, Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, which is a comedy of riches, but then it's all topped off by Dan Hedaya just throwing himself into the role of Dick Nixon, plus the great Teri Garr as a Watergate-Hotel dwelling single mom who, like most of the adults in this would-be teen-comedy/political satire, has no idea what's going on under her very nose.

And now, Dick.

Title features a manual typewriter with psychedelic bubble font

Our protagonists, bubbly Betsy Jobs (Dunst) and her romantic best friend Arlene Lorenzo (Williams)—two high school sophomores who can't wait to win a date with their idol Bobby Sherman. But when when they sneak outside of Arlene's Watergate apartment's bedroom to mail in their contest entry, stumbling upon a late-night break-in, fate has other plans in store for them.

The detail in every upper middle-class set of this film is astonishing. Note Arlene's trendy TV and bedroom phone (both luxuries in the inflated 70s) alongside her crafty Bobby Sherman shrine.

According to the DVD commentary (yes, as a dedicated chronicler of obscure film history, I listened to that) a warehouse full of period-era polyester fabrics was discovered pre-production and so Dunst and Williams were treated to a wardrobe of custom-made clothes made from unbreathable synthetic fabrics—great way to get into character—the 70s were colorful but uncomfortable for most of us.

Some major polyester going on here

This is a cartoon version of the Watergate scandal, but perhaps that's what's needed after a dark political corruption storm of this magnitude. Wait, was I just describing the early 70s or today? Either way, over time, the sociopaths at the center of corruption tend to look more absurd (but just as creepy) with hindsight. And also, look at the 70s—this art direction is only a slight exaggeration of certain 70s concepts, and when I say slight, I mean the width of a polyester thread.

Betsy gets the "cool" history teacher and it shows in her presentation.

While poor Arlene gets the "up-tight" teacher. This was the extreme cultural divide that we found ourselves in after the social upheaval of the 60s.

Betsy and Arlene are solidly upper middle-class and have plenty of leisure time to enjoy the latest in 70s fades and fashions. The last of the baby boomers, allowance-dollars in hand had plenty of recreational and consumer activities to partake in. I don't know who on the film crew painted and lit this roller rink, but I want to shake your hand.

A typical (hyper-real) hip girl's room of the era. Canopy bed, lots of orange, textiles, pastels, brights, patterns, flowers and a collie lamp to add a touch of whimsy.

The heady days of trying to make sense of a world gone made through the prism of girlhood friendship.

Featuring David Cassidy. RIP.

Ana Gasteyer as Nixon's extremely dedicated secretary Rose Mary Woods.

Dick sets in motion a series of events that filter the Watergate scandal through the actions of two bumbling sub-intelligent girls. It's purposefully silly as hell, but the girls, as performed by Dunst and Williams, are endearing. And their dum-dum legacy is a sort of prequel to another cult film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which remains the pinnacle of dumb friendship movies as far as I'm concerned.

Nixon recorded everything he said—leading to the downfall of a paranoid would-be zealot

More polyester in our nation's capitol.

Ryan Reynolds, in one of many effective and very funny small roles, and a muscle car.

And here's a typical teen-boy room of the era. Trophies, plastic skulls, groovy love poster all framed in brown plaid (not shown: beer bong).

According to the DVD commentary, once Will Ferrell was on board playing straight-laced Bob Woodward to Bruce McCulloch's preening, narcissist Carl Bernstein, a flock of funny people joined the fray.

Best use of Yes's "I've Seen All Good People" in a scene of journalistic triumph

Comedy goddess Teri Garr, long may she reign.

This Watergate Hotel room cannot get any more 70s than this

Also on hand is Devon Gummersall as Betsy's stoner brother Larry, who might be the most insightful person in this satirical world, albeit while being very, very high.

Do you like brown? Then you'll love the 70s

Dan Heydaya firing all his guns as, at that time, one of our freakiest most corrupt Presidents.

I would never make any effort to rehabilitate Nixon's image. He was a criminal, a freak, and deeply flawed on many levels. But the orange person currently residing in the White House is, relatively speaking, makes Nixon look a lot more like an actual human. Sad.

Just here for the poncho in the foreground. My aunt made me one of these for Christmas one year and I was kicking it in second grade in my swinging poncho—thanks Auntie Joan.

A tight shot of a period department store demonstrates what creative art direction and a decent budget can accomplish.

For the girls, the Watergate conspiracy comes to its ultimate conclusion. At the mall. Which is very 70s.

So long, Dick.

In conclusion, I would like to see Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Reynolds do more comedy—they have the chops and they're both so effortlessly charismatic onscreen. I would also like to update Dick for the Trump era and I would call it Shit. But that's just a working title. And the story would begin in the 80s, because imagine the art direction!

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