Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
You wouldn’t think that a film in which David Spade gets excrement spewed all over his head would be a high watermark for this series so far, but sometimes the universe likes to play cruel tricks on us. I had never seen Joe Dirt before, but I couldn’t count how many times — especially when I was in middle school, when it was first released — that somebody had quoted a line or referenced a scene. To this day, I would argue that Dirt is the most quotable film of the Happy Madison canon. And with good reason: Joe Dirt’s signature lines — like “Life’s a garden, dig it” or the fists-as-microphones bit — are easy to mimic and easier to remember. To paraphrase the immortal words of Principal Skinner1, you need something that’s witty at first but seems less funny each time you hear it.
It also helps that Joe Dirt doesn’t hinge itself on some lowest-common-denominator gimmick a la Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo or Little Nicky. The film has plenty of jabs at rednecks and white trash but the jokes don’t often feel mean-spirited (as they typically might with Spade) or cheap. Joe Dirt’s signature mullet may almost seem more like a marketing gimmick than a character trait, but the film argues that Dirt would be the same person with or without the mullet. And, to his credit, it’s actually a wig that Joe’s mother placed on him because his skull never formed properly. Or something like that.
Spade had already become a household name by the time the film was released in 2001, but it was mostly as a small potato to his longtime friend Chris Farley, as well as his other Saturday Night Live castmates. Joe Dirt was Spade’s first opportunity to see if he could carry a film on his own. For the most part, Spade succeeds in creating a fully realized character (which, as a screenwriter, he helped create along with co-writer Fred Wolf). Spade had cut his teeth, both in film and television, playing weasels that were usually the butt of the joke. Make no mistake: Joe Dirt is clearly a pathetic character, but Spade finds a way to make him sympathetic if not always someone to root for. Spade may come up short whenever the film requires him to do anything emotional, as in the scene when he learns the fate of his parents while live on the radio, but if you’re coming to a David Spade movie expecting emotional honesty, somebody lied to you somewhere along the way.
The film’s episodic structure helps to keep the pace fresh and loose, as Joe Dirt moves from one part of the country to the next in search of his parents. Cameo appearances from Christopher Walken, Kid Rock (maybe the easiest casting decision of all time), and Jaime Pressly bring some new energy whenever the story gets a little stale. Maybe don’t think too hard on the plot machinations every time Dirt has to move on, though. Being a Happy Madison film, of course Joe Dirt is a film that prioritizes jokes over any type of cohesive story or character development, but at least you more or less get a sense that everyone enjoyed being there.
It may be early in the chronology of these films, but it’s already clear there’s a dividing line in the effort and care that goes into certain Happy Madison productions. Sure, it’s easy to note that the films starring Spade or Adam Sandler attracted bigger stars and could ride more easily on their film personae. But glance at the budgets for each film so far, and there’s no clear formula to determine which films will be successful or not. Deuce Bigalow grossed $92 million while Little Nicky only made $58 million. Further muddying the equation, the budget for The Animal was $47 million while Joe Dirt was only $17 million. (Where the money went for the former will be an eternal mystery to me.) Still, Dirt was commercially successful despite its predictable critical backlash.
Throughout the course of his titular film, Joe Dirt makes friends with a frozen turd, gets his head chewed on by an alligator and straps himself to a glorified porta-potty. And yet the film doesn’t exist to drag the audience through the mud. Were it not for Dirt’s sunny optimism throughout all the aforementioned shenanigans, the film would end up feeling much more cynical. That’s not necessarily a bad thing by default, but one really works best when it has something substantive to fall back on, like a dynamic performance or a tightly written script. Joe Dirt largely doesn’t have those things. But it does have a cow with a bottle rocket strapped to its tail.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: You’re almost spoiled for choices with this film, as there are tons of one-scene cameos from celebrities and character actors. Everybody makes an appearance from Kevin Nealon as the greasy mechanic and Fred Stoller as a chemistry teacher to Fred Ward as Joe Dirt’s father. I was tempted to pick Rosanna Arquette, mostly because her role is uncredited, despite her screen time and name recognition. However, I’m going with Erik Per Sullivan as young Joe Dirt, solely because I’ve always loved Malcolm In The Middle and I will always defend it as one of the greatest sitcoms ever.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. I know radio wasn’t dead yet when this film came out, but the idea of groups of people — including a group of sexy sorority girls?!?! — gathered around a radio, listening to a morning zoo show, is inherently silly to me. Old people: Was this a real thing?
- Fart Joke Counter: Three, plus at least two extended poop jokes.
- The Walkout Test: Another tough nut to crack. I hate to keep harping on the “David Spade getting pooped on” scene, but it’s just too over-the-top. A soft Fail!
- I’m not going to spend any time going back to check, but if I did the math correctly, isn’t this film technically supposed to take place either in the late 1980s or, at best, the early 1990s? Dirt casually mentions 1979 as the year when he was lost at the Grand Canyon. And yet, he makes an appearance on TRL in the third act? I know that Carson Daly and TRL were at the height of the zeitgeist when Joe Dirt was released, but that was a bizarre moment.