Junkfood Cinema: Dick Tracy

By  · Published on May 6th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; all your candy are belong to us. How many words do I really need expend on this introduction? If you’re a frequent reader of the column, who hasn’t managed to blow himself up building a working replica of Bill & Ted’s phone booth, you are already aware of my affinity for terrible movies and you have wasted more time than you dare admit reading this insufferable column.

For those of you who haplessly wandered in hoping to find the nutritional content of the KFC Double-Down or creative Junior Mint recipes, my condolences. But now that you’re here, you should know that the JFC system is threefold. First, I point out the film’s numerous faults; heckling it from the cyberspace balcony like Statler and Waldorf. But then, on a dime, I switch it up and sing the film’s inexplicable praises like a banjo-wielding frog expounding on the merits of rainbows. Finally I will pair the film with an appropriate snack food item upon which you can feverishly chow down like a furry blue monster well on his way to crippling obesity.

This week’s delicacy (which is likely to be brought to you by the words cease & desist): Dick Tracy

What Makes It Bad?

Dick Tracy boasts membership in two very prestigious clubs; “prestigious” being both the key word and a complete lie. First, it is one of the few remaining pseudo-superhero movies served up by the gallon in the 1990s that JFC has not covered. I’d give this movie a grade of Rocketeer-Minus on a scale of Phantom to Shadow. Much like its brethren, it is a period film taking place in the 30s-40s area because so many of these films were based on old radio shows, movie serials, and that source material which gains Dick Tracy its admittance to the second club: comic strips. Mark my words, no good ever came from adapting comic strips for the screen. I turn your attention to people’s exhibit A: Dennis the Menace. Not convinced, then perhaps you’d like to subject your eyes to another viewing of Garfield? Still a hung jury? People’s exhibit C-Z: The Spirit. The prosecution rests. As with most movies based on four panel story hiccups, Dick Tracy is as light on plot as it is character development, subtlety, performance, brains, or the ability to stay in fucking focus. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Warren Beatty stars as the titular detective in what will surely go down in history as the definitive argument against directors casting themselves in their own bad films. Warren is a guy whose name carries some impressive, if arguably unearned, clout, but he manages to appear less like a professional actor here and more like a key grip who wandered into frame and, unbeknownst to even himself, began reciting lines from the script. He looks perpetually bewildered and comes off as the exact opposite of a hard-boiled detective; soft-boiled in fact, a squishy detective. His emotional range, as demonstrated by his various aloof expressions, is rivaled only by that of the character who is called The Blank who literally has no face. He’s also the world’s worst police officer. His sole driving motive is put Big Boy behind bars, and yet he withholds a key piece of evidence against Big Boy in the name of letting a cheap floozy make her own decision about doing the right thing? You know what grandpa, just eat your ice cream and play circus acrobat seesaw because obviously you’re totally a legit cop.

Not since Rocky IV has a film been so bold as to tell almost its entire story through the understated, respectable art of the montage. But where Rocky IV’s montages are exciting and instill one with a sense of hope and triumph, those in Dick Tracy instill one with a sense of boredom and time-to-get-to-sandwich-and-a-glass-of-Tab-dom. It’s as if the screenwriters knew in advance that Stephen Sondheim would be writing all the original songs and decided to also task him with handling the many blank pages in the script they forgot to get around to because they were busy taking hulk-sized fist-fulls of barbiturates. When Dick is trying to get his nemesis Big Boy, we get a montage to the tune of “I Always Get My Man.” When Tess is trying to decide whether she wants to stay with Dick or lose their relationship entirely, we get “What Can She Lose.” When Dick is locked away in prison on a frame-up and Big Boy is back in business, we get the enigmatically titled “Back in Business.” Don’t miss the song that plays over the credits: “These Are The People Who Made The Movie.” My theory is that they circumvented much of the plot because Warren Beatty could only remember one page worth of lines.

Why I Love It!

I’m fairly certain that every card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild turns up in Dick Tracy at one point or another. To list them all would make this article only slightly shorter than a list of all Matthew McConaughey’s misguided career choices. Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Dick Van Dyke, Mandy Patinkin, Charles Durning, Henry Silva, William Forsythe, and those are just the one’s I can name before my mouth just starts dropping random syllables into fake actor names…Flandar McMiviox. The thing I love about all these major names crammed into one cheese-coated waste of celluloid is that I’m fairly certain most of them only agreed to be this film because they knew they would be buried under mountains of makeup and therefore unrecognizable. Seriously, I know the villains in the comic strip were vaguely-racist exaggerations of mobsters, but I fear the film goes a little overboard adapting this concept for the screen. With all of the police characters looking painfully average (and yes that does include its “movie star” male lead) it pushes Dick Tracy into a weirdly sci-fi dimension when all its bad guys resemble radioactive mutants in fedoras.

I loves me some gangsters. When those gangsters are Capone-era miscreants who are flash-fried in vivid technicolor suits, all the better. By the end of the film, once the writers realized they had been meandering through a dull-as-Henry-Kissinger’s-dish-water plot for seventy minutes, they flip the switch on a tommy gun slaughter that is absolutely amazing. They go all Mars Attacks and murder nearly their entire cast. I can’t help but think the movie Valentine’s Day could have benefited from the same elegant solution. I also love the idea of taking familiar, arbitrary gangster nicknames and transforming them into physical traits. Pruneface is not simply a crack about popular character actor R.G. Armstrong’s age but a reference to the fact that he has an actual prune face. For the record, my nickname would have been Washboard Stomach…or Guy Who Lies A Bunch.

I wholeheartedly enjoy the storyline involving The Blank. “He” is the one character in the film that feels legitimately menacing. “He” also represents the only portion of the plot that actually goes ANYWHERE! Corruption, intrigue, murder, revenge…all the things the writers plum forgot to insert into a vast majority of the script. It’s the one part of the movie that isn’t a flat, uninteresting love triangle between ol’ man Beatty and two women I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. Oh, I’m sorry Madonna, are you supposed to be the femme fatale character? I couldn’t tell by your baby talk and your hopelessly desperate boobmongering! At least we get hundreds of scenes between Dick and his two potential gals shot in ungodly soft focus. After a while it was like watching a love story play out in the middle of John Carpenter’s The Fog. But thank god they found a way to take the one likable portion of the story and bring it right around back to the obnoxiously awful love story! I’m going to pretend that it was actually Charles Durning under that Blank mask because that just seems sexier somehow.

Junkfood Pairing: Walnut Candy

Big Boy Caprice, apart from his diminutiveness, has one indelible signature: shoving walnuts down his gullet like a starved Fox Squirrel. The nutritional value of walnuts have been debated for years with some camps of dietitians believing they are healthy, while others espousing they are high in fat and low in actual protein. There is something fitting about our featuring a food product whose merits are debatable and subjective; much like those of certain films. In response to this aptness, slather the walnuts in sugar and suck down batch after batch until the doctor’s take your foot.

The first fix of Junkfood Cinema is free, and so are the second, third, fourth and so on

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.